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Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition affecting up to 4 million Americans, including celebrities like Lady Gaga and Morgan Freeman. If you have fibromyalgia, you may experience sore, stiff muscles, a constant widespread achiness and debilitating fatigue. The problem? Any X-rays and lab tests your doctor orders will come up negative. There are no definitive diagnostic tests for the condition.
Fibromyalgia has become this bucket diagnosis that we give patients who don’t fit squarely into other categories. And while fibromyalgia doesn’t destroy your joints, organs or tissues, the unrelenting aches, pain and fatigue can dramatically affect your quality of life.
Here are my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about this baffling illness:
Q: What is fibromyalgia?
A: Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes widespread muscle pain, fatigue and disturbances in sleep, memory and mood. Researchers believe it’s caused by an alteration in the way your brain processes pain signals that heightens the perception of pain. People who have fibromyalgia experience more pain and tenderness than those who don’t have the condition. They also experience something called “fibro fog” or “brain fog,” which impairs their ability to focus and think clearly. Unfortunately, fibromyalgia has also become a diagnosis doctors give when their patients don’t fit squarely into another category. An important thing to note is that while the condition is life-altering and can dramatically impact a person’s quality of life, it is not life-threatening.
Q: Who is most susceptible?
A: Fibromyalgia affects twice as many women as men and often strikes during middle age (between 30 and 55). While doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific cause, we know fibromyalgia tends to run in families and often occurs after certain triggers, such as physical or emotional trauma, certain illnesses and infections, and even psychological stress. Research also suggests that people who have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus may be more likely to develop fibromyalgia.
Q: How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?
A: Unfortunately, there’s no single test doctors can use to diagnose fibromyalgia. In the past, doctors would check 18 specific points on a person’s body to see how many of them were painful when pressed firmly. Today, doctors make diagnoses based on symptoms, after ruling out any possible medical conditions that could be causing those symptoms. If a person has had widespread pain for more than three months – with no underlying medical condition that could cause the pain – they’ll likely receive a fibromyalgia diagnosis.
Q: What treatment options are available?
A: It’s important for patients to understand there is no cure for fibromyalgia. The goal is to manage symptoms and that starts with establishing healthy lifestyle habits: good sleep hygiene, regular exercise and a healthy diet. While it seems counterintuitive, you’re best served to stay as active as possible. It can be difficult to do because you’re in pain, but if you start slowly with walking, swimming or biking and build up your endurance, you’ll find your pain symptoms lessening.
Many patients discover stretching, massage, meditation, tai chi and yoga also help alleviate pain. When lifestyle strategies are not enough, doctors may prescribe medications ranging from over-the-counter pain relievers to antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs. Patients may also want to explore physical therapy, occupational therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and alternative approaches like light therapy, acupuncture and neurofeedback.
It’s important to remember that, although it can be overwhelming, fibromyalgia is not life-threatening. The key to feeling as good as you can is finding a physician you’re comfortable talking to who understands fibromyalgia. The right doctor can help you develop a multidisciplinary approach to pain management and explore options that work for you rather than just handing you a prescription and sending you out the door.
Dr. Nessreen Rizvi is an internal medicine physician and sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Columbus in Novi.
To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
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