Fibromyalgia is characterized by:
Research is pointing to a mechanism of central nervous system hypersensitivity to pain.
General risk factors include:
About 50% of the risk is explained by genetic factors, the other 50% is attributed to external stressors.
Modifiable risk factors include:
People with fibromyalgia present a degree of pain that cannot be fully explained by inflammation or signs of tissue damage.
Treatment usually involves not only relieving symptoms, but also changing a person's attitudes about their disease.
Many on-label and off-label drugs are prescribed to treat fibromyalgia.Of those, drugs that are centrally-acting, include:
Non-pharmacologic therapies that have been shown to benefit fibromyalgia patients include:
Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes lasting, and sometimes debilitating muscle pain and fatigue. It is characterized by:
No one knows exactly what causes it. Some research suggests that the central nervous system is hypersensitive to pain. Fibromyalgia often emerges in those who have experienced chronic pain earlier in their life through some other means, such as trauma, injuries, infections, or autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. The long lasting earlier chronic pain is thought to sensitize the central nervous system to pain stimuli, resulting in fibromyalgia.
Many people complain that they cannot get to sleep or stay asleep, and they feel tired when they wake up. Some report that their fatigue is more distressing than their pain, because it interferes with their ability to enjoy life. Some experts believe that if a person does not have sleep problems, the condition may not be fibromyalgia. Researchers continue to investigate the link between fibromyalgia and sleep.
The exact cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown. The hallmark of fibromyalgia is hyperactivity of pain pathways in the central nervous system.
Physical injuries, trauma, viral infections, or other conditions that cause long lasting pain are associated with fibromyalgia, but no one trigger has been shown to be the primary cause of fibromyalgia.
Many experts believe that fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition brought on by several abnormal body responses to stress.
People with fibromyalgia have decreased activity in opioid receptors in parts of the brain that affect mood and the emotional aspect of pain. This reduced response might explain why fibromyalgia patients are likely to have depression or other mood disorders, and are less responsive to opioid painkillers.
Many hormonal, metabolic, and brain chemical abnormalities have been described in studies of fibromyalgia patients. Changes appear to occur in several brain chemicals, although no regular pattern has emerged that fits most people. Fibromyalgia may be a result of the effects of pain and stress on the central nervous system that lead to changes in the brain, rather than a brain disorder itself.
Factors that may trigger a person's stress response and contribute to the development of fibromyalgia, include:
Some people with fibromyalgia may be oversensitive to external stimulation, and overly anxious about the sensation of pain. This increase in awareness is called generalized hypervigilance. People with fibromyalgia have been found to have greater awareness of, or less tolerance for, movement problems (such as tremor) that do not match their expected sensory feedback. This mismatch in sensory signals might enhance the perception of pain. People with fibromyalgia also seem to be more sensitive to sounds.
Fibromyalgia has symptoms that resemble those of some rheumatic illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus). These are autoimmune diseases in which a defective immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own healthy tissue, producing inflammation and damage. The pain in fibromyalgia, however, does not appear to be due to autoimmune factors, and there is little evidence to support a role for an inflammatory response in fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia are more likely to also have a psychiatric disorder, such as:
While psychological stressors are not the primary causes of fibromyalgia, they may contribute to the condition in 3 ways:
Studies have reported higher rates of severe emotional and physical abuse in people with fibromyalgia compared with the general population.
PTSD or chronic stress may play a strong role in the development of fibromyalgia in some patients. PTSD is an anxiety disorder triggered by a specific traumatic event. Some evidence indicates that PTSD actually causes changes in the brain, possibly from long-term overexposure to stress hormones.
Depending on the criteria used, 2 to 8% of American adults have fibromyalgia. Some evidence suggests that several factors may make people more susceptible to fibromyalgia. These risk factors include:
Fibromyalgia can arise at any age, any ethnic group, and in developing and industrialized countries alike. However, nearly all people with fibromyalgia have experienced multiple periods of chronic pain, often localized, earlier in their life through any one of a number of sources, such as:
Family members of people with fibromyalgia often suffer themselves from some form of chronic pain. First-degree relatives of people with fibromyalgia are more likely to have fibromyalgia themselves. The way a person processes pain may be in part due to genetic factors.
There are some risk factors for fibromyalgia that the person may be able to control. These are:
These modifiable risk factors can be addressed by reducing stress, improving sleep habits, gradually becoming more physically active, and employing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques. Together, these interventions may be therapeutic enough to not necessitate a drug prescription.
Typically, a person with fibromyalgia presents a degree of pain that cannot be fully explained by inflammation or signs of tissue damage.
It is important to diagnose fibromyalgia as soon as possible, so treatment can be started.
Fibromyalgia criteria can be helpful, particularly if the person does not have another disorder, such as depression or arthritis, which could complicate the diagnosis. Failure to meet the criteria, however, does not rule out fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia should be suspected in any person who has muscle and joint pain with no identifiable cause.
The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) put forth diagnostic criteria in 1990 and then later updated the criteria in 2010. The main difference is that the old criteria focused on the presence of pain at specific tender points mapped on the body, whereas the new criteria is concerned with the extent of pain anywhere on the body. Another difference is that the new criteria balanced the presence of pain with other symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive problems, and mood problems.
The ACR's proposed new scoring system that replaced the tender point examination with the summation of the following 3 assessments:
An additional point for the presence in the last 6 months of each of these symptoms: headaches, irritable bowels, and depression (0 to 3 points).
A total score surpassing 12 has been proposed as a cutoff for diagnosis, although some view fibromyalgia as a spectrum disorder, where the score simply reflects the severity of the condition.
A doctor should always take a careful personal and family medical history, which includes a psychological profile and history of any factors that might indicate other conditions, such as:
During this medical history, people should tell their doctor about any drugs they take, including vitamins and over-the-counter or herbal medications.
The physical exam may not reveal much, other than the tender spots that are included in the diagnostic criteria. These spots must be painful when pressed, not simply tender. For fibromyalgia to be diagnosed, these tender sites should not show signs of inflammation (redness, swelling, or heat in the joints and soft tissue).
The tender points may change in location and sensitivity over time. A doctor may recheck tender points that do not respond the first time in people who have other fibromyalgia symptoms.
The doctor will also examine the nails, skin, mucus membranes, joints, spine, muscles, and bones to help rule out arthritis, thyroid disease, and other disorders.
No blood, urine, or other laboratory tests can definitively diagnose fibromyalgia. If these tests show abnormal results, the doctor should look for other disorders.
Tests that are done to diagnose or rule out diseases with similar symptoms may include:
The doctor may suggest follow-up psychological profile testing if laboratory results do not indicate a specific disease.
Between 10 and 30% of all doctor's office visits are due to symptoms that resemble those of fibromyalgia, including fatigue, malaise, and widespread muscle pain. Because no laboratory test can confirm fibromyalgia, doctors will usually first test for similar conditions.
Getting diagnosed with one of the disorders below may not always rule out fibromyalgia, because several conditions may overlap or coexist with fibromyalgia, and have similar symptoms. Like fibromyalgia, a number of these conditions also cannot easily be diagnosed. It is not clear whether these conditions cause fibromyalgia, are risk factors for the disorder, have causes in common with fibromyalgia, or have no relationship at all with it.
There is a significant overlap between fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). As with fibromyalgia, the cause of CFS is unknown. A doctor can diagnose either disorder based only on symptoms reported by the patient. The 2 disorders share most of the same symptoms. They are also treated almost identically. The main differences are:
Myofascial pain syndrome can be confused with fibromyalgia. It may also occur with it. Unlike fibromyalgia, myofascial pain occurs in trigger points, as opposed to tender points, and typically there is no widespread, generalized pain. Trigger-point pain occurs in tight muscles, and when the doctor presses on these points, the person may experience a muscle twitch. Unlike tender points, trigger points are often small lumps, about the size of a pencil eraser.
The link between psychological disorders and fibromyalgia is very strong. Studies report that 50 to 70% of fibromyalgia patients have a lifetime history of depression. However, only 18 to 36% of people with fibromyalgia meet the criteria for major depression.
People who have both a psychological disorders and fibromyalgia may be more likely to seek medical help, compared with people who simply have symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Depressed feelings in people with fibromyalgia can be normal responses to the pain and fatigue caused by this syndrome. Such emotions are temporary and related to the condition. They are not considered to be a depression disorder. Unlike ordinary periods of sadness, an episode of major depression can last for many months.
Symptoms of major depression include the following:
If several of the above symptoms are present, and none of the physical symptoms (particularly the tender points) of fibromyalgia exist, the condition is most likely major depression.
Chronic primary headaches, such as migraines, are common in people with fibromyalgia. Some experts believe that migraine headaches and fibromyalgia both involve abnormalities in brain chemistry regulation, including that of serotonin and epinephrine (adrenaline). Low levels of magnesium have also been noted in patients with both fibromyalgia and migraines. Chronic migraine sufferers who do not benefit from usual therapies may also have fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of a migraine attack may include heightened sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vision problems (auras), speech difficulty, and intense pain that is mainly on one side of the head.
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is a term for conditions in which symptoms are attributed to certain chemicals as the cause. Symptoms can be similar to CFS or fibromyalgia. Because everyone is exposed to many chemicals on a daily basis, it is very difficult to determine whether chemicals are responsible for specific symptoms.
About 15% of people with fibromyalgia have restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS is an unsettling and poorly understood movement disorder that is sometimes described as a sense of unease and weariness in the lower leg that is aggravated by rest and relieved by movement.
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease transmitted by ticks. Health care providers can usually (but not always) diagnose Lyme disease correctly using blood tests that identify antibodies directed at the bacteria that cause it. But if this infection is not diagnosed correctly, it may be mistaken for fibromyalgia. If people with fibromyalgia are incorrectly diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease with long courses of antibiotics, the drugs may have serious side effects.
Fatigue is a side effect of many prescription and over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines. Constant fatigue is also a symptom of drug and alcohol dependency or abuse. Providers should consider medications as a possible cause of fatigue if a person has recently started, stopped, or changed medications. Withdrawal from caffeine can also produce depression, fatigue, and headaches.
Polymyalgia rheumatica is a condition that causes pain and stiffness. It generally occurs in older people. Tender points are also present with this disorder, although they almost always occur in the hip and shoulder area. Morning stiffness is common, and people may also experience fever, weight loss, and fatigue. It is important to diagnose polymyalgia rheumatica early with an ESR blood test, because some people with polymyalgia rheumatic have a related condition (giant cell arteritis) that may lead to blindness if not treated. Polymyalgia rheumatica usually responds to low doses of a steroid medication such as prednisone.
Certain pain-related conditions are also common in people with fibromyalgia, and have overlapping symptoms. Some experts believe these disorders interact so often that they may all be part of one general condition. Examples are:
Fibromyalgia can be mild or disabling, and the emotional toll can be substantial. People with fibromyalgia experience greater psychological distress and a greater impact on quality of life than those with other conditions, such as chronic low back pain.
About half of all people have difficulty with routine daily activities, or are unable to perform them. An estimated 30 to 40% of people have had to quit work or change jobs. People with either CFS or fibromyalgia are more likely to lose their jobs, possessions, and support from friends and family than are people suffering from other conditions that cause fatigue.
The pain, emotional consequences, and sleep disturbances that come with fibromyalgia may lead to self-medication and overuse of sleeping pills, alcohol, drugs, or caffeine.
Treatment usually involves not only relieving symptoms, but also changing a person's attitudes about their disease, and teaching them behaviors that help them cope.
Because fibromyalgia involves hyperactivity of the central nervous system, treatments that target the peripheral nervous systems (such as opioids, corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and surgery) are not as effective. Drugs that are centrally acting are more likely to provide relief, and include:
Many people with fibromyalgia are treated first with medication; however, a combination of non-pharmacologic therapies sometimes appears to work just as well as drug therapy for improving pain, depression, and disability. These therapies include: patient education, graded exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and complementary therapies (acupuncture, balneotherapy, yoga, etc.)
Treatments usually involve trial and error:
People must have realistic expectations about the long-term outlook of their condition, and their own abilities. It is important to understand that fibromyalgia can be managed, and people can live a full life with the disorder.
The definition of improvement is personal. For example, some people are pleased with only a 10% reduction in pain and other symptoms.
The following tips may be helpful when starting a fibromyalgia treatment program:
Experts say the treatment of fibromyalgia in children should begin with non-drug therapies, including exercise and CBT. While some medications are recommended for adults, most have not been well tested in children yet. Analgesics and NSAIDs are not very effective in children. Psychological therapies may help control pain in children, although there is no evidence that they improve disability or mood.
There is no consensus over which treatment is most useful, or whether a combination of treatments works best. People may receive drug treatments in combination with exercise, patient education, and behavioral therapies.
Pregabalin (Lyrica), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and milnacipran (Savella) are FDA approved for treating fibromyalgia. However, many other drugs, including antidepressants, sleeping aids, pain relievers, and muscle relaxants, are also used to treat the condition. The goal with medication is to improve sleep and pain tolerance.
The main classes of antidepressants used for treating fibromyalgia are tricyclics, SSRIs, and SNRIs. Although these drugs are antidepressants, doctors sometimes prescribe them to improve sleep and relieve pain in non-depressed patients with fibromyalgia. The dosages used for managing fibromyalgia are generally lower than dosages prescribed for treating depression. If a person has depression in addition to fibromyalgia, higher doses may be required.
Tricyclic antidepressants were the first drugs to be well-studied for fibromyalgia. They may be more effective than SSRIs and SNRIs for fibromyalgia symptoms. Tricyclics cause drowsiness and can be helpful for improving sleep. They are also effective for reducing pain, and improving depressed mood and quality of life. The tricyclic drug most commonly used for fibromyalgia is amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep). Other tricyclics include nortriptyline (Pamelor, Aventyl), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Sinequan), imipramine (Tofranil), and amoxapine (Asendin).
Generally, only small doses of tricyclic antidepressants are needed to relieve fibromyalgia. Therefore, although tricyclics have several side effects, these side effects may be less frequent in people with fibromyalgia than in people who are taking tricyclics for depression. The side effects most often reported include:
As with all medications, tricyclic antidepressants must be taken as directed. An overdose can be life threatening.
Unfortunately, not all people respond to tricyclics, and the effects wear off in some people, sometimes after only a month.
Cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) relaxes muscle spasms in specific locations without affecting overall muscle function. It helps relieve fibromyalgia symptoms. Cyclobenzaprine is related to the tricyclic antidepressants and has similar side effects, including drowsiness, dry mouth, and dizziness.
SNRIs act directly on 2 chemical messengers in the brain; norepinephrine and serotonin. These drugs appear to have more consistent benefits for fibromyalgia pain than SSRIs. They also tend to have fewer side effects than the tricyclics and are well tolerated.
Pregabalin is an anti-seizure drug that works through the chemical messenger gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps prevent nerve cells from over-firing.
There is some evidence that pregabalin may improve sleep quality, fatigue symptoms, and fibromyalgia pain. The most common side effects include mild-to-moderate dizziness, sleepiness, and impaired motor function and concentration. People should talk to their doctor about whether pregabalin may affect their ability to drive.
Another anti-epileptic, gabapentin (Neurontin) relieves pain in some people with fibromyalgia. People have reported sleeping better and feeling less tired after taking this drug. However, gabapentin can cause side effects such as dizziness, sleepiness, and swelling.
SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain, which may have specific benefits for fibromyalgia patients. Commonly prescribed SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluvoxamine (Luvox). They may improve sleep, fatigue, and well-being in many people, but their role in improving pain is not certain. SSRIs should be taken in the morning, since they may cause insomnia. Common side effects are agitation, nausea, and sexual problems, including a delay or loss of orgasm and low sex drive.
GHB is the active ingredient of sodium oxybate (Xyrem), a drug usually prescribe for serious sleep disorders. It has been show in some studies to be helpful for patients with fibromyalgia; however, due to the risk of potentially fatal respiratory depression, the FDA did not approve it as a treatment for fibromyalgia.
Nabilone (Cesamet), is a synthetic drug derived from marijuana may be another effective option for fibromyalgia treatment, according to early studies. However, there are some challenges to using nabilone for fibromyalgia. First, it is a controlled substance that can become addictive, and it is so expensive that it would be cost-prohibitive to use for a chronic disease such as fibromyalgia.
Many studies have shown that exercise is the most effective part of managing fibromyalgia, and people should expect to take part in a long-term exercise program. Physical activity prevents muscle wasting, increases emotional well-being, and, over time, reduces fatigue and pain.
Exercise programs for fibromyalgia often combine aerobic, strength training, and flexibility exercises with self-education. Benefits can last for up to 9 months after the exercise program ends.
In general, graded exercise involves:
Adding CBT to a program of graded exercise may also help people with fibromyalgia feel better.
It is important to start an exercise program slowly. People who try difficult exercises too early actually experience an increase in pain, and are likely to become discouraged and quit. Every person must be prepared for relapses and setbacks, and should not get discouraged. People who do not respond to one type of exercise might consider experimenting with another form.
Sleep is essential, particularly because sleep disruptions worsen pain. Many people with fibromyalgia have trouble getting a restful and healing night's sleep. Those who are consistently unable to sleep have little improvement in symptoms. Swing shift work, for example, is extremely hard on people with fibromyalgia. Poor sleep habits can add to sleep problems. Tips for good sleep habits include:
[For more information see In-Depth Report #27: Insomnia.]
Relaxation and stress-reduction techniques are proving helpful for managing chronic pain. Evidence shows that people with fibromyalgia have a more stressful response to daily conflicts and encounters than those without the disorder. Several relaxation and stress-reduction techniques may be helpful for managing chronic pain, including:
Meditation can provide the following physical benefits:
An important goal for both religious and therapeutic meditation practices is to quiet the mind; essentially to relax thought. This redirection of brain activity from thoughts and worries to the senses disrupts the stress response and prompts relaxation and renewed energy.
People who try meditation for the first time should understand that it can be difficult to quiet the mind, and they should not be discouraged by a lack of immediate results. Some experts recommend meditating for no longer than 20 minutes in the morning after waking up, and then again in the early evening before dinner. Meditating just once a day is helpful. Do not meditate before going to bed, because it causes some people to wake up in the middle of the night, alert and unable to get back to sleep.
Because of the difficulties in treating fibromyalgia, many people seek alternative therapies. Although some studies have reported a benefit from these treatments, there is not enough evidence to recommend them.
Some alternative remedies are being investigated for fibromyalgia. Examples include: melatonin, a natural hormone associated with the sleep-wake cycle; and S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a natural substance that has antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and pain relieving properties. Studies have suggested benefits for some people with fibromyalgia, but trials done so far have not been well designed.
Generally, manufacturers of herbal remedies and dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA to sell their products. It is extremely important for people to realize that any herbal remedy or natural medicine that has positive effects most likely has negative side effects and toxic reactions, just like any conventional drug. There have been a number of reported cases of serious and even deadly side effects from herbal products.
Consult a doctor before using any herbal products or dietary supplements. Also discuss with your doctor the potential interactions between the supplements and any medications you take.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective way to help patients deal with chronic pain and stressful situations. Although the effects of CBT and other non-medication treatments for fibromyalgia do not always last over the long-term, evidence suggests that CBT can help some patients with fibromyalgia, particularly those with a high level of psychological stress.
CBT may be particularly useful for addressing insomnia, one of the hallmark symptoms of fibromyalgia. In studies, people who received CBT for insomnia woke up less often at night, had fewer symptoms of insomnia, and had an improved mood.
CBT is particularly helpful for defining and setting limits, which is extremely important for people with fibromyalgia, who often push themselves too far. People learn to prioritize their responsibilities and drop some of the less important tasks or delegate them to others. Learning these coping skills can eventually lead to a more manageable life. People also learn to view themselves and others with a more flexible attitude.
A typical CBT program may involve the following measures:
People should learn to accept that relapses occur, and that pushing to accomplish too much too soon can often cause a relapse. People should respect these relapses and back off, and not consider them a sign of failure.
Research also shows that patient education can be effective in treating fibromyalgia, especially when combined with CBT, exercise, and other therapies. Educational programs can take the form of group discussions, lectures, or printed materials.
Cognitive therapy may be expensive and often is not covered by insurance. Other effective approaches that are free or less costly include support groups or group psychotherapy. The success of these programs varies based on the skill of the therapist.
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Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. A.D.A.M.