Helping Loved Ones Diagnosed with Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia

One of the trickier aspects of fibromyalgia is having to cope with new limitations.

Another is the fact that its symptoms are not readily apparent—fibromyalgia is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’and unless a patient is expressing their pain verbally or through physical cues, the disease often goes otherwise undetected by others. Some patients are even accused of totally imagining the disease, or blowing the symptoms out of proportion. As a result, patients often appreciate being able to talk about their pain and discomfort without judgment from loved ones.

It is therefore important for loved ones to lend a listening ear. Despite showing no visible signs, the symptoms of fibromyalgia can be quite debilitating for most patients.

There are a few simple ways that loved ones can help their friend or family member suffering from fibromyalgia.

The first step is to listen to their experience with the disease while trying not to insert one’s own biases or amateur diagnoses. Simply being there to hear what they are saying while showing them that you are there to support them is a crucial means of helping those affected by the disease.

Oftentimes grief arises as the symptoms persist, and patients come to grips with fact that the illness is something that will affect their lives on a daily basis. Once-easy tasks or activities, such as opening a jar of jam or playing certain sports, may now cause significant duressat which point sufferers tend to feel negative about themselves. It is important for close friends and family to show support as their loved ones pass through the commonly experienced stages of grief associated with the diagnosis. Expect a myriad of emotions—especially expressions of anxiety and stress—as the reality sets in.

Diagnosis can take a long time and involve several different types of testing, all of which can take an emotional toll on loved ones. For perhaps years, symptoms of the disease may have manifested themselves in various ways, and as the diagnostic process goes on, there may be doubt and uncertainty as to underlying causethe patient may even start worrying about the possibility of life-threatening worse-case-scenarios. As specialists rule out other conditions with overlapping symptoms, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, loved ones should make sure to be present and supportive during the often tiring process.

Being present may mean accompanying the affected friend or family member to doctor appointments. Doctors may ask loved ones about how symptoms have appeared from their perspective, thereby adding to a more well-rounded diagnostic process. Since pain and fatigue can inhibit a patient’s ability to express themselves clearly and precisely, having a family member or close friend there can increase chances of better communication.

Many people suffering from the condition feel as if nobody else understands what they are going through. It is critical for loved ones to inform themselves about the symptoms and mechanics of the disease so that they can more effectively care for the person suffering, as well as make appropriate adjustments to certain aspects of their living situation.

Anxiety and stress can flare up quickly, meaning that the person affected may not be at their emotional best—sometimes acting crabby, or even slightly belligerent. Once loved ones understand this, they should be less likely to take negative outbursts personally, and rather accept them as part of the disease. It is therefore probably best to avoid unnecessary arguments as much as possible.

Memory problems may also arise, so it may be wise to not overburden those suffering with tasks, such as having to remind other people of scheduled responsibilities or any kind of strenuous planning.

Symptoms will fluctuate on a daily basis, which can add to frustration. But with a thorough understanding of the disease, and knowing the reasons behind some of the patient’s behaviors, loved ones may work collaboratively to alleviate and minimize symptoms.

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What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia

Current information regarding fibromyalgia can sometimes be conflicting as the disease was only given status as a legitimate medical diagnosis in the recent past. Most doctors accept fibromyalgia as a diagnosis, but some do so with skepticism. As a result, many suffer from the condition without adequate diagnostic testing and comprehensive treatment. The majority of doctors do, however, place special importance and attention on the treatment of fibromyalgia.

With roughly 5 million patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia in the U.S. alone, there is still no known cure or clear understanding of what exactly causes the disease. The majority of cases occur in females (about 4 out of 5). The most common symptom is a pervading ache throughout the body’s muscles and jointswith the neck, shoulders, and lower regions of the body, often feeling particularly sensitive. Sleep problems, mood instability, persistent fatigue, and depression, are other associated symptoms. It is currently unclear whether certain symptoms are rooted in the fibromyalgia itself or are secondary effects of the disease.

Medical science is producing new and better medications on a continuous basis, including both analgesics and antidepressants. The condition can also be treated holistically, combining dietary and herbal remedy approaches, physical exercise routines, as well as one-on-one and group counseling, to more effectively combat the disease.

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The Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

The most common fibromyalgia symptom prompting a patient to visit their doctor is widespread musculoskeletal pain that persists for long periods of time. Other symptoms of fibromyalgia that may occur include sleeplessness, fatigue, and mood instability, which often overlap with symptoms associated with other rheumatic diseases.

If fibromyalgia is suspected to be the cause of chronic pain, doctors administer a series of tests to rule out whether the symptoms might be caused by another condition or disease. Several diseasesespecially those rheumatic in natureshare overlapping signs and symptoms. The most critical factor in a physician’s initial diagnosis is to ensure that the underlying cause is not something that requires urgent treatment.

Experience of any of the symptoms described below warrants consultation with a doctor.

Fatigue and Sleep Problems

While fatigue can occur for short periods of time in completely healthy individuals, those with fibromyalgia usually experience extreme fatigue for protracted lengths of time. In some cases, the fatigue is so severe that the patient feels unable to complete basic day-to-day tasks, such as showering or even getting out of bed. Fatigue is further aggravated by sleep problems associated with fibromyalgia, including night restlessness, insomnia, sleep disturbances, and sleep apnea.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is the most widely reported symptom among those suffering from fibromyalgia. Patients often report prolonged periods of joint stiffness, muscle cramping, weakness, and soreness throughout the body.

Some people experience allodynia, which occurs when someone perceives pain from a stimulus that is not normally considered painful, such as a light handshake or a gentle pat on the back.

Psychological Symptoms

Fibromyalgia patients also report psychological symptoms in addition to physical ailments. Anxiety, depression, memory problems, and difficulties concentrating, are most commonly reported. As medical research currently stands, doctors are uncertain whether these psychological symptoms represent the effects of living with fibromyalgia or are rooted in the disease itself. Roughly half of all fibromyalgia patients experience significant degrees of depression, anxiety, or other psychological symptoms.

A majority of patients experience what is informally known as “fibro fog,” which is characterized by difficulty focusing, remembering details, carrying out complex cognitive tasks, and planning ahead.

Other more general symptoms of fibromyalgia include joint stiffness (especially in the mornings), headaches, digestive disorders, difficulty balancing, and itchy skin.

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What Risk Factors are Associated with Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder most commonly associated with widespread musculoskeletal pain and discomfort. No cure currently exists, and its causes are speculative and uncertain. Further, fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose as its symptoms overlap with several other conditions and diseases. Certain risk factors, however, have shown strong correlations with developing the disease.

Genetic Predisposition

Research shows that those with a family history of fibromyalgia are more susceptible to developing the disease, suggesting that the disorder is borne out of some kind of hereditary genetic mutation. The odds of developing the disease are higher if it has appeared in the immediate family. Some studies show correlations between other kinds of chronic pain conditions and genetic abnormalities.

Age & Gender

Fibromyalgia appears more frequently in females, who account for roughly 4 out of every 5 diagnoses. Although the precise reasons for its prevalence among women are unknown, some studies account for differences between male and female neurotransmitter patterns. Initial diagnosis occurs most often among those ages 20 to 50.

Anxiety & Stress

Anxiety and stress are known to deplete the brain’s serotonin, which is one of the primary neurotransmitters responsible for pain sensitivity and mood regulation. Recurrent stress, sometimes resulting from a lack of physical activity, can lower serotonin levels and increase pain sensitivity. Low serotonin is also associated with depression, which is a major symptom.

Sleep

Research shows that sleep deficiencies—such as insomnia, restlessness, and sleep apnea—lead to a lower pain threshold. While sleep disorders are associated symptoms of fibromyalgia, they may also occur long before fibromyalgia develops, bringing into question whether certain symptoms of the disease are contributory causes, rooted in the disease itself, or byproducts.

Trauma & Infection

Many of those diagnosed have a history of emotional and physical trauma. Severe or recurrent injuries to the brain or spinal cord, as well as severe psychological trauma, are all thought to increase the likelihood of developing the disease. Certain infections are thought to increase susceptibility.

Related Conditions & Diseases

The symptoms overlap with those of several other conditions and diseases, particularly within the category of rheumatic diseases. Pain or inflammation in the joints, for instance, is common among those with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and lupus. Doctors will test for all related conditions before diagnosing a patient with fibromyalgia.

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Treating Fibromyalgia

Treating Fibromyalgia

Despite the fact that the exact causes and mechanisms underlying fibromyalgia are relatively unclear, there are a number of effective treatment strategies to alleviate and minimize its symptoms. Certain treatment therapies work better than others and it is, therefore, crucial to work with your doctor in deciding the most appropriate strategy to best for treating fibromyalgia.

Physical Exercise

Levels of serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation and pain sensitivity) have been shown to increase with regular exercise. Adopting a consistent exercise routine (particularly aerobics) is a great way to manage symptoms, and to potentially prevent the development of the disease in the first place. Low levels of physical activity have been associated with worsening symptoms. By committing to aerobic exercise on a regular basis, patients may experience decreased pain, improved sleep, and more stabilized moods.

Exercise options, however, may be limited as fibromyalgia sometimes exists concurrently with other rheumatoid conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis. It is therefore important to consult with a doctor to determine what constitutes safe physical activity.

Medication

Although there is no medical cure for fibromyalgia, there are certain medications that work to alleviate symptoms.

Musculoskeletal pain is often treated with over-the-counter medications such as Advil and Tylenol. In more serious cases, patients are prescribed oxycodone and morphinebut most doctors are hesitant to do so because of their potential for abuse and addiction.

Sleep problems, fatigue, and issues with mood are sometimes treated with antidepressants, such as Prozac, Cymbalta, and Savella, which work to improve serotonin levels in the brain.

Muscle and joint pain may be treated with anti-seizure drugs such as Lyrica, which lowers the body’s sensitivity to pain through neurological signal alteration.

Psychology & Psychiatry

The emotional and cognitive effects of fibromyalgia may require therapy with either a psychologist or psychiatrist, who may prescribe the patient certain medications, as well as provide coping strategies for dealing with chronic pain.

Prevention & Maintenance

Although there are no known causes specifically and directly attributed to fibromyalgia, maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle may decrease chances of developing the condition.

Further, prevention of flare-ups of the disease in those already diagnosed includes treating infections promptly, avoiding drastic dietary changes, and exercising within healthy parameters.

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Are there Support Groups for People with Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia

Those wondering if their symptoms correspond with fibromyalgia may wish to join a local support group, which is a good way to learn about doctors in the area who specialize in diagnosing and treating the disease. Support groups are beneficial to those suffering from symptoms in a number of ways.

With over 10 million people suffering from fibromyalgia in the U.S. alone, there are usually many groups in more populated areas to help patients avoid going through living with the disease by themselves. Symptoms such as chronic fatigue and musculoskeletal pain can be partially alleviated when patients are able to voice their experience among those also suffering.

Suffering from the symptoms tends to make patients feel isolated and depressed when surrounded by otherwise healthy individuals not experiencing those same symptoms. Joining a support group is a great way to get useful advice about coping with symptoms and helps not to feel as if they are the only ones experiencing symptoms.

Support groups also provide an opportunity to get more information about the disease. Fibromyalgia was only classified as a legitimate medical diagnosis in the relatively recent past, and medical professionals are constantly coming out with new research regarding better diagnosis and treatment strategies. Connecting with others suffering from the disease provides an opportunity to gain knowledge of the latest treatment strategies, thereby increasing the chances of finding better ways to treat the condition.

Networking with those diagnosed also means that you can hear about how different people reacted to various treatment strategies. Given the variety of treatment strategies available, learning about which ones worked and which ones did not, as well as their associated side-effects, can influence you to make better decisions.

Close friends and family may also attend support groups to get a better understanding of the disease and offer more support for their loved ones. The more widespread awareness and knowledge there is surrounding the condition, the more likely those experiencing symptoms may consider undergoing diagnostic testing. Many programs currently work to promote awareness, and as a result, increase support for one day finding a cure. Overall, joining a fibromyalgia support group ultimately helps support fighting the disease.

Fibromyalgia support groups may be found by asking your doctor and through searching online.

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What Causes Fibromyalgia?

What Causes Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal disorder characterized by widespread aches and pains throughout the body. Its specific causes are yet unknown. Further, fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose as its symptoms overlap with several other conditions and diseases. Common symptoms include sleep problems, joint stiffness, memory problems, and mood swingsall negatively impacting a patient’s quality of life. So what causes fibromyalgia? Current research suggests a link between fibromyalgia and genetic predisposition, as well as environmental factors.

Roughly 10 million people are affected by fibromyalgia in the U.S. alone, with 4 out of 5 diagnoses occurring in females. The disease affects its sufferers in a number of ways, often making it difficult to pinpoint which symptoms are rooted in the disease itself and which are simply byproducts. For instance, depression and anxiety are commonly reported among those diagnosed, but it is unsure whether they are part of fibromyalgia itself or effects produced from living with the uncomfortable disease. Emotional ramifications may occur as the direct result of its physically taxing elements, including pain to the touch in certain areas of the body. It is important for doctors to evaluate all symptoms reported by their patients to determine which may be caused by other disorders.

Genetics and Environment

Medical research shows a strong correlation between genetic factors and the development of fibromyalgia. Those with fibromyalgia in the family are at a greater risk of also getting the diseasesuggesting that fibromyalgia is rooted in some kind of genetic mutation.

Other factors besides genetics also seem to contribute to the development of fibromyalgia, such as certain infections and rheumatic disorders. Repeated physical trauma has been linked with the disease, with a high rate of occurrence among those who have suffered multiple automobile accidents or sports injuries. A history of fractured vertebrae in the spine is particularly associated with fibromyalgia patients.

Emotional trauma has also been theorized as a potential cause. In other cases, otherwise healthy individuals without a genetic predisposition to the disease, a history of significant trauma, or any other medical issue, still end up developing the disease.

Neurological Aspects

Some specialists theorize that pain experienced by those with fibromyalgia is rooted in an abnormality in the neurological experiencing sensations. Specialists at the Mayo Clinic propose that repeated nerve stimulation results in an overproduction of neurotransmitters that process pain. These receptor sites then begin overreacting to pain regardless of its intensity because the imprints of previous pains increase receptor sensitivity. The National Institute of Health also suggests that fibromyalgia has to do with neurological pain-processing, while also proposing genetic links, stating, “some scientists speculate that a person’s genes may regulate the way his or her body processes painful stimuli.”

Fibromyalgia was only classified as a legitimate medical disease in the relatively recent past, making both its diagnosis and treatment methods a burgeoning field of medical research.

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How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder involving musculoskeletal aches and pains throughout the body, often associated with sleep, fatigue, and memory problems. Diagnosis is made difficult because its symptoms overlap with other diseases, thereby requiring a doctor to administer several tests to differentiate fibromyalgia from other possible disorders.  

Rheumatologists are the most common type of physician involved with diagnosing and treating fibromyalgia; however, as research evolves toward uncovering its potential causes, other specialistssuch as psychiatrists, immunologists, and neurologistsare increasingly involved in treating the disease.

Symptoms may include extreme fatigue, joint stiffness (especially after sleep), anxiety, memory and concentration problems, depression, chronic pain in various parts of the body, and sleep disturbances.

The most common symptom leading patients to initially see their doctor is chronic widespread pain lasting for several months. Doctors may recommend that the patient visit a rheumatologist who can better assess musculoskeletal pain. Specialists can rule out other symptoms, such as pain, extreme fatigue, and sleep disturbances, as not being associated with other conditions like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Blood tests and thyroid function analysis can rule out certain symptoms—fatigue and trouble sleeping, in particular—as not overlapping with abnormal thyroid activity. The most important thing a doctor needs to assess is whether the underlying condition is something that requires immediate medical treatment.

Once a specialist has ruled out other conditions and diseases as causing symptoms in the patient, a clinical symptom checklist specific to fibromyalgia is administered. Developed by a group of specialists at the American College of Rheumatology in 2010, the checklist entails filling out a survey which lists each symptom and asks the patient to rate the severity of each symptom from 1 to 10 (10 being the most severe). The scores are then tallied toward making a diagnosis.

Diagnosis is finalized when the doctor determines that the patient meets three criteria: first, negative test results for other diseases with overlapping symptoms; second, chronic symptoms lasting for at least three months; and three, a fibromyalgia checklist score at or above the determined level.

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