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Fibromyalgia – An Overview

Updated on May 05, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Kelly Crumrin

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. Fibromyalgia can be treated, but there is no cure. Fibromyalgia is not life-threatening and does not shorten life expectancy, although it can lead to a lower quality of life and disability.

For many years, fibromyalgia was a controversial topic in the medical field. Since it cannot be detected by tests, and researchers have not yet identified how it develops, many doctors denied its existence or insisted that it was a purely psychological phenomenon. Fibromyalgia is more widely recognized now, and guidelines exist for its diagnosis and treatment. Still, people with fibromyalgia often face social stigma.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

No one knows what causes fibromyalgia or how it develops within the body. Although fibromyalgia is sometimes categorized with arthritis, it is not a type of arthritis. Fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Fibromyalgia predominantly affects the nervous system.

The History of Fibromyalgia

For most of human history, pain without obvious cause was referred to as rheumatism – a vague term for inflammation in muscles and joints. At times, people who looked well but reported pain and fatigue were labeled mentally ill.

In 1824, Scottish doctor William Balfour described a pain syndrome that involved specific tender points. Sir William Gowers, a British neurologist, suggested the term “fibrositis” be used for muscular rheumatism in 1904. The name fibromyalgia was adopted by the medical profession in 1976. The name of the disease comes from the Latin word fibra (referring to fibrous tissue such as tendons and ligaments) and the Greek words myos and algos, meaning muscle and pain respectively.

In 1990, American College of Rheumatology published criteria for diagnosing fibromyalgia. The American Pain Society announced guidelines for the treatment of fibromyalgia in 2005. In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Lyrica (Pregabalin), the first drug for treating fibromyalgia. Cymbalta (Duloxetine) was approved in 2008, and Savella (Milnacipran) was approved in 2009.

How Common Is Fibromyalgia?

Estimates vary widely on how many people have fibromyalgia. Some studies say that 4 or 5 million adults in the United States have fibromyalgia, while other sources suggest the disease affects as many as 10 million Americans. Fibromyalgia has been found in populations around the world and may affect 3 to 6 percent of people. Women are much more likely than men to develop fibromyalgia – some researchers say the risk for women is twice as high, some say 10 times higher. Fibromyalgia is more common among people diagnosed with an autoimmune condition such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or spondylitis. Fibromyalgia is most commonly diagnosed in middle age but is sometimes diagnosed in children and older adults.

How Does Fibromyalgia Progress?

Fibromyalgia is not considered a progressive disease. Symptoms may grow worse over time, but there is no predictable disease course. Most often, people with fibromyalgia experience disease flares, when symptoms become more severe, and periods of remission, when symptoms lessen or disappear.

Condition Guide

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FAQs

Can you die from fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia does not cause death or shorten the lifespan.

How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose fibromyalgia with a detailed patient history and physical exam. X-rays and blood tests do not prove fibromyalgia, but they may be required to rule out other diagnoses such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or hypothyroidism. Fibromyalgia is frequently misdiagnosed, and it may take time to receive the correct diagnosis. Learn more about the fibromyalgia diagnosis process.

What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia symptoms include widespread chronic pain throughout the body with specific tender points, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, depression, cognitive changes, and other problems. Learn more about fibromyalgia symptoms.

How is fibromyalgia treated?
The most common medications prescribed to treat fibromyalgia symptoms are drugs in the antidepressant and anticonvulsant classes. These drugs are believed to interrupt pain signals in the brain. Many people with fibromyalgia use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (Ibuprofen) or opioids such as Ultram (Tramadol) to control pain. Regular exercise and a nutritious diet are considered beneficial for improving fibromyalgia symptoms. Learn more about fibromyalgia treatments.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Kelly Crumrin is a senior editor at MyHealthTeam and leads the creation of content that educates and empowers people with chronic illnesses. Learn more about her here.

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