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Fibromyalgia-Not "All in Your Head"

separator Fibromyalgia is a complex, chronic condition. It causes muscular aching, pain, stiffness, tenderness and fatigue. The term "fibromyalgia" comes from "fibro," meaning fibrous tissues such as ligaments and tendons; "my," meaning muscle; and "algia," which means pain. The pain of fibromyalgia is typically located in the soft tissues around the joints, in the skin and in organs throughout the body.

Fibromyalgia doesn't cause joint swelling, the way arthritis often does, so it often doesn't have visible signs. It can be an especially frustrating condition, because many physicians are not sure how to diagnose it. Patients may find themselves having medical test after test showing nothing is wrong.

A Few Facts
  • About 80 percent of people who suffer from fibromyalgia are women.
  • Fibromyalgia is the most common cause of general musculoskeletal pain in women between the ages of 20 and 55.
  • It does not appear to be related to ethnicity.
  • Nobody knows for sure what causes it, although some researchers, practitioners and patients believe that its onset follows a serious traumatic physical event (car accident, injury, infection) or serious emotional trauma.
Fibromyalgia can cause depression and anxiety. It can affect your family and your work life. Since it's difficult to diagnose, some medical professionals may even tell you it's "all in your head."

Medical professionals believe that fibromyalgia is a life-long condition, although it's not life threatening. People who seem to do best with fibromyalgia are those who make beneficial lifestyle changes. They change their diet, exercise regularly, learn to manage stress and generally try to find a balance in their lives.

Lois's Fibromyalgia Story
Lois is 56 years old and works part-time two days per week. She lives in Cincinnati. Her first sign of fibromyalgia was "constant uncomfortable pain. It became a burning pain in some areas, and those areas would be very sore."

These "sore areas" are called trigger points, Lois explains. It's common for people with fibromyalgia to have these pains in specific areas of the body. In fact, this is often how doctors can confirm a fibromyalgia diagnosis. "There are 18 trigger points, and if you have a certain percentage of those, then it's confirmed. I had them all."

She received her fibromyalgia diagnosis about a year and a half ago. "The doctor made the diagnosis after I made a visit to her during a crisis period. I was experiencing so much pain. It was an intense, burning pain and the soreness had started to settle in."

These days, Lois has learned to manage her condition in several ways:
  • Anti-inflammatory and pain medication as needed
  • Isometric exercise
  • Avoiding food that contains a lot of acid
  • Making time during the day to rest. "Not to sleep, but to relax (I try.)"

She acknowledges that stress makes fibromyalgia worse, but says she was frustrated by "one doctor who told me that I needed to enroll in a stress management class. He said if I got rid of my stress I'd eliminate the pain."

Managing stress does help decrease the pain, but it doesn't "eliminate" the pain.

"On a daily basis, my pain level is about 4 to 5, on a scale of 1 to 10. On bad pain days, it can get as high as 10, and I am totally uncomfortable. Being able to control certain situations, such as stress, food, at times body temperature, certain activities, I can get through the day without piling on the medication. When I was first diagnosed, I was devastated by hearing the words that this condition would be with me for the rest of my life. It's much better now, because I can manage the pain."

Dealing with Stress
Lois has worked hard to make changes that help her deal with stress. "I was always called a perfectionist, everything had to be just so. I would strive for giving 110 percent. But that has changed. I would never put off for tomorrow what could be done today. I do now," Lois explains.

Lois prioritizes the stress in her life. "I ask myself, 'How does this stress benefit me? Is it worth a lot of my attention? What will I gain or lose by putting this on the back burner, or ignoring it altogether?"

Lois's Advice to Others with Fibromyalgia
For people who may be finding out now that they have fibromyalgia, Lois says, "Rest assured, it's not the end of your world. Aside from taking medication, expect to make some lifestyles changes. Take life a little slower. Put some things off for tomorrow, and don't crowd your day. Prioritize your stressors. Learn to say no, and stick to it."

The National Fibromyalgia Partnership, Inc; W. Salt, E. Season. Fibromyalgia and the MindBodySpirit Connection. Parkview Publishing, Columbus, Ohio, 2000.
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