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What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by chronic widespread muscle pain, fatigue, sleep disorders, memory problems, and tenderness at certain points on the body. It is a leading cause of musculoskeletal pain in the United States. The cause of fibromyalgia is not completely understood, but it has been suggested that people with fibromyalgia process pain differently from other people.

Fibromyalgia is a common disorder affecting approximately five million people in the United States alone. It is more common in women than men, with an estimated 80% to 90% of all fibromyalgia cases occurring in women. Fibromyalgia is typically diagnosed during middle age (Source: NIAMS).

Symptoms of fibromyalgia may appear directly following an emotionally or physically traumatic event, or they may slowly increase in severity without obvious cause. Not everyone who has fibromyalgia will have all of the characteristics of the disorder, and some symptoms may lie in remission for a time. Fortunately, several medications are available for managing symptoms, including analgesics and antidepressants.

While its cause is not understood, some cases of fibromyalgia have been related to injuries, illnesses, certain chronic diseases, and traumatic events. A genetic component for fibromyalgia has also been suggested.

In some cases, left untreated, the pain of fibromyalgia can lead to a serious emotional condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have such serious symptoms as suicidal thoughts or severe depression with thoughts of harming yourself.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for fibromyalgia but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is often associated with persistent muscle pain, particularly in areas that have been noted as trigger points or localized points of pain. Emotional symptoms may also be caused by fibromyalgia due to stress, lack of sleep, and chronic pain. Fibromyalgia may be strongly associated with other conditions, such as endometriosis (presence of uterine lining tissue outside the uterus), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease), and sleep disturbances.

Physical symptoms of fibromyalgia

You may experience fibromyalgia symptoms daily or only occasionally. Any of these physical symptoms can range from mild to severe:

  • Decreased tolerance for exercise
  • Digestive problems, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue (often worse mid-afternoon)
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Migraine or tension headache
  • Muscle pain that can be severe
  • Numbness and tingling in feet and hands
  • Paresthesias (tingling, burning, crawling sensations)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stiffness when waking
  • Tenderness, concentrated at certain areas known as tender points

Emotional symptoms of fibromyalgia

You may experience fibromyalgia symptoms daily or only occasionally. Any of these emotional symptoms can be severe:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Difficulty with memory

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, left untreated, the pain of fibromyalgia can lead to a serious emotional condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior
  • Severe depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

What causes fibromyalgia?

The cause of fibromyalgia is not understood. Sometimes it develops in association with traumatic injuries, illnesses, stress injuries, psychological trauma, or even surgery, but these have not been proven to be the cause of fibromyalgia. It has been suggested that people with fibromyalgia process pain signals differently, and a genetic tendency has also been suggested.

What are the risk factors for fibromyalgia?

A number of factors are associated with fibromyalgia. Not all people with risk factors will get fibromyalgia. Risk factors include:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of joints between the vertebrae of the spine)
  • Family history of fibromyalgia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

How is fibromyalgia treated?

Treatment for fibromyalgia begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine whether you have fibromyalgia, you will be asked questions about your symptoms and when symptoms occur, and you will be asked to undergo diagnostic testing. Medications can relieve symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, such as pain and inflammation.

Your health care professional can develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs. It is important to follow your treatment plan for fibromyalgia precisely to help minimize your symptoms and decrease the chance of your symptoms recurring over time.

Medications used to treat fibromyalgia

Medications used to treat fibromyalgia include:

  • Analgesics, such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Antidepressants, such as duloxetine (Cymbalta), fluoxetine (Prozac), or milnacipran (Savella)
  • Antiseizure medications, such as gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Pain relievers such as Tramadol (Ultram)

What you can do to improve your fibromyalgia

Your treatment plan for fibromyalgia may also involve lifestyle changes, such as regular physical activity and a healthy diet. Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce stress on your muscles and joints and thereby lessen the severity of symptoms.

In addition to taking your medications as prescribed, you can reduce the severity of your symptoms by:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting plenty of sleep (improve sleep hygiene regimen)
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help with fibromyalgia. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of fibromyalgia?

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of fibromyalgia include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Depression
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Weight gain
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 20
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Fibromyalgia. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  2. Fibromyalgia. NIAMS National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  3. Bennett RM. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Rheum Dis Clin North Am 2009; 35:215