A woman holding her shoulder and lower back

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, depression, environmental sensitivities, and digestive symptoms.

In this illness, experts believe that pain signals are exaggerated by the brain and nerves, amplifying the sensation of pain you experience. This disordered signal processing leads to several abnormal types of pain

No objective blood or imaging tests can identify it, so fibromyalgia is diagnosed with subjective criteria and by excluding other possible causes of symptoms.

Treatment may involve antidepressants to target abnormal brain chemistry, physical therapy, massage, lifestyle changes, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications specifically approved to treat fibromyalgia, such as Lyrica (pregabalin).

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes fibromyalgia?

    No one knows for certain. Symptoms are believed to be caused by a dysfunctional nervous system. The condition itself is believed to be caused by some combination of multiple factors, including:

    • Genetics
    • Hormonal changes
    • Long-term stress
    • Acute illness, including some viruses
    • Chronic pain, which may “rewire” the nervous system

    Risk factors include being female and between the ages of 20 and 50.

  • Is fibromyalgia a disability?

    Many people with fibromyalgia are disabled. However, symptom severity varies greatly from one person to another, and may include flares (times when it’s especially bad) and remissions (when symptoms are light or absent.) It can also get better or worse over time.

    Fibromyalgia may qualify you for Social Security Disability Insurance, depending on how severe it is.

  • Is fibromyalgia an autoimmune disease?

    Fibromyalgia might be an autoimmune disease, but experts don’t know for sure yet. Some evidence suggests an overactive immune system, and the condition may be associated with damage to certain nerve structures, including the optic nerve. Many people with fibromyalgia have autoimmune diseases (e.g., lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome), which could point to a common pathophysiology.

  • What does fibromyalgia feel like?

    Fibromyalgia involves many types of pain, so it can feel achy, stabbing, burning, tingling, and/or like electrical “zings.” People commonly talk about how their skin hurts to the touch, almost like a sunburn. In addition, there’s usually fatigue, lack of energy, and a foggy or dull feeling in the brain. It’s common for people with fibromyalgia to feel anxious or depressed as well.

  • Is fibromyalgia hereditary?

    Fibromyalgia can run in families, but it’s not hereditary in the sense that certain genes mean you will develop the condition. Rather, experts believe people who are genetically predisposed to fibromyalgia may develop it if other conditions arise, including: 

    • Periods of extreme stress
    • Injury
    • Certain illnesses
    • Hormonal changes 
    • Sleep disorders

    Together, many factors may combine to trigger fibromyalgia.

  • How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

    To diagnose fibromyalgia, doctors rely on symptoms, tests to exclude similar illnesses, and two questionnaires called the Widespread Pain Index (WPI) and Symptom Severity Scale (SS). A high enough combined score indicates fibromyalgia. Some doctors may still use a tender point exam, which is a measurement of widespread pain, but this method has generally been replaced with the WPI and SS.

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Page Sources
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  1. Bellato E, Marini E, Castoldi F, et al. Fibromyalgia syndrome: Etiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. Pain Res Treat. 2012;426130. doi:10.1155/2012/426130

Additional Reading