Watch CBS News

The Mystery of Fibromyalgia

By Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Staff

Fibromyalgia is a bit of a medical mystery. It's a disease of unknown causes characterized by lasting pain, fatigue and changes in mood. The general thought is that fibromyalgia affects the brain's ability to process pain — regularly amplifying pain signals that cause waves of exhaustion and aching to radiate through the body.

"Fibromyalgia is a serious condition that's more common than people might think," says Renee A. Moran, DO, Pain Management Specialist and Anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). "In fact, it's estimated that fibromyalgia affects two to three percent of the U.S. population, 80-90% women."

Although the true causes of fibromyalgia are often unknown, research suggests that a variety of factors work together to cause the condition. These factors may include: genetics, stress, emotional trauma, repetitive injuries, and certain illnesses. Studies show that patients suffering from fibromyalgia are more likely to have suffered severe emotional or physical abuse. This suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder may play a role in the development of fibromyalgia as well.

Fortunately, there are many treatment options available. "Combination treatments of exercise, stress reduction techniques, physical therapy and traditional practices such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and massage therapy have been shown to effective treat fibromyalgia pain," says Moran. "We also highly recommend treatment with a pain psychologist to help develop beneficial coping mechanisms."

As with many chronic illnesses, the treatment for fibromyalgia emphasizes minimizing symptoms and improving general health. An important first step is understanding physical and emotional limits, and not pressing those boundaries. In some cases, your doctor might recommend prescription options.

"Combined cardiovascular fitness training and flexibility programs can provide significantly greater improvement than a psychologically based muscle relaxation technique," says Moran. "For example, many patients respond well to water-based exercises. Recent studies have shown that aqua-therapy provides noticeable improvement in quality of life measures and pain in fibromyalgia."

Moran adds that exercise, sleep and diet are all key to controlling fibromyalgia. Regular exercise prevents muscle wasting, increases well-being, and helps reduce chronic fatigue and pain. Since fatigue is one of the defining symptoms of fibromyalgia, proper sleep habits are essential to feeling your best. Diet is equally important. Make sure to enjoy a healthy diet with plenty of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. And try to avoid caffeine in the evenings, as this can prevent you from getting a good night's sleep.

"There is no standard protocol or pathway to guide pain management," notes Moran. "Treatment choice is made on an empiric basis and really is based on the individual."

The good news is that fibromyalgia isn't a progressive or life-threatening disease. By reducing stress, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and finding support in others, you can better manage your symptoms and reduce the risk of flare-ups. If you experience lasting pain or significant fatigue, make sure to contact your doctor right away.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor. Posted August 2016


View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.