Understanding Fibromyalgia and Its Effects
“Fibromyalgia isn’t real.”
“The pain fibromyalgia patients feel is all in their head.”
“It is really rare.”
“Only women suffer from fibromyalgia.”
Surprisingly, fibromyalgia affects 3-6% of people worldwide. And although the majority of individuals affected by it are female, it does affect men as well.
When Lady Gaga’s ‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’ documentary premiered on Netflix last year, her struggle with fibromyalgia was thrown into the spotlight. Highlighting the pain that many diagnosed with fibromyalgia experience on a daily basis, the documentary broke down some popular misconceptions and answered questions about the condition and those that have it.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition defined by widespread pain, tenderness, and fatigue.
Although speculated by many that it isn’t real, the pain and symptoms of the disorder are all too real for those that suffer from it.
The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- Pain: Individuals with fibromyalgia may describe the pain as a burning sensation, a muscular-type pain, a dull ache, or tightness. For doctors to diagnose the condition as fibromyalgia, the individual must have widespread pain for at least 3 months. Widespread pain refers to pain on the left and right sides of the body and both the lower and upper body.
- Fatigue: Many people often feel drained. Due to extreme pain, sleeping difficulties like insomnia and sleep apnea are quite common.
- Mood Changes: Physical pain combined with lack of sleep can mean that those diagnosed with the condition experience mood swings, depression, and anxiety disorders. Further, the existence of “fibro fog” often impacts their daily activities, concentration, and focus levels in a negative way.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
The exact cause of fibromyalgia is not entirely known. However, researchers and doctors have concluded that it is likely caused by the way the brain and nervous system process pain signals. The general consensus is that pain signals are intensified, so a minor muscular ache to the average person is often unbearably painful for someone with fibromyalgia.
Interestingly, doctors often diagnose fibromyalgia after experiences of psychological or physical trauma, or following a gradual onset of pain symptoms. Some experts have found a chemical imbalance may further be to blame for the condition. Those that have the disorder tend to have lower levels of the feel-good hormones, including serotonin and dopamine. These hormones help regulate pain and our mood. When they are lacking, there is an increased sensitivity to pain and an obvious decrease in mood.
What is Life Like for a Person With Fibromyalgia?
Similar to other chronic pain disorders, some days are easier than others.
Some days the pain is an 8 out of 10, other days it may drop to a 3 or 4. Most often than not, though, pain is always present on some level. The severity can range depending on sleep, activities, and mood.
The bad days are often signified by “flare-ups.” These are periods of time that can last from a few days to a few weeks and may further intensify due to sleep disruptions. Individuals may find it tough to function at a base level throughout their day. During these times, many people with fibromyalgia find it hard to partake in social activities or even to leave their house.
When “fibro fog” takes over, bright lights and loud noises are aggravating. Paying attention is hard. Remembering things may involve overcoming many mental obstacles. Cognitive abilities in general become significantly impaired.
A major hurdle for people with fibromyalgia to vault is staying positive. Use downtime to your advantage. Read or try and rest to catch up on sleep. Generally, take it easy until you feel even slightly better. It comes down to knowing and listening to your body. Constantly being in pain is exhausting. It is okay not to be able to do everything all the time.
Treatment for Fibromyalgia
For most individuals, appropriate treatment methods can help ease symptoms and aid in leading a relatively “normal” life.
Although there is no definite cure, a physician may recommend certain medications to ease muscle tension and pain. The most commonly prescribed medications include duloxetine, milnacipran, and pregabalin. These 3 medications target the root of the problem by helping with mood regulation and nerve pain.
In addition to any medication, exercise is always a huge part of treatment. Low-impact physical activity and strength training help to manage the pain and boost endorphins. Yoga, walking, pilates, and swimming are great exercise options for those with fibromyalgia.
It may also help to talk to someone. Depression is common in individuals with fibromyalgia. Seek the appropriate treatment if needed. There is no shame in asking for help. Exercise can also help improve mood and help you sleep better, combating depression, stress, and anxiety symptoms.
Know Someone with Fibromyalgia? Here’s How You Can Help:
- Educate yourself. This can help you determine why your loved one may be feeling a certain way and help you react in the most helpful way for them. Ask the person to explain how they experience their condition. Every person is different; it might help you to understand their unique point of view.
- Be empathetic. As aforementioned, pain is absolutely exhausting. It drains you. Empathy comes with a general understanding of the condition.
- Don’t get upset if they cancel plans last minute. Bad days and flare-ups can come out of nowhere. Likely, your loved one is already upset they can’t join in and getting annoyed or mad at them isn’t going to help. Understand their pain is out of their control.
- Practice patience, especially during flare-ups. “Fibro fog” can impact major cognitive processes. Avoid getting angry or upset if you’re asked to repeat yourself or if they have trouble understanding you.
- Ask how best you can support them. Again, the best source of information is your friend or family member with the condition. Maybe you can help them stick to their exercise regime which in turn will help alleviate some of their symptoms. Asking how you can help lets them know you care.
- Self-care. If you are supporting someone with fibromyalgia, make sure to take care of yourself too! You can’t give your best if you aren’t feeling your best.
- Stay positive. Keep reminding your loved one about things that make them happy, especially during the bad times. Don’t criticize. If they can’t do something due to a flare-up or pain, reassure them that it’s okay. Fibromyalgia is a manageable condition. It is not a death sentence.
May 12th is National Fibromyalgia Awareness Day
Educate yourself. Take the time to talk to someone you know with fibromyalgia. Donate to an organization that researches the condition or supports people suffering from it. Understand that even small gestures can mean so much more than you might think.
Lady Gaga has conquered the pop music world despite her struggle. You are stronger than you think.