Who’s at Risk for Fibromyalgia? A Pain Doctor Explains

While there’s no known cause, many patients share a few factors in common.

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Pain is often linked to clear, obvious causes: lifting heavy objects, bad posture, a broken bone, a paper cut, arthritis, or a bee sting. One pain condition whose causes doctors and researchers still struggle to understand is fibromyalgia. Researchers may not yet know the cause, but there does appear to be some risk factors for fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome associated with chronic muscle pain throughout the body. It does not appear to be an issue with joint problems (unlike osteoarthritis) or inflammation (unlike rheumatoid arthritis).

What is fibromyalgia syndrome?

Unlike many other pain-causing conditions, fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease, and it’s not caused by inflammation. Instead, one theory is that people with fibromyalgia process pain signals differently than others.

Think of it this way: Normally, nerves in your body detect pain when you touch something sharp or hot. The nerve messages your brain, which then interprets the message as pain. In people with fibromyalgia, the brain may interpret sensations as more painful than they actually are. As a result, someone with fibromyalgia might interpret a tap on the shoulder or a cold breeze as actually painful.

In addition to these symptoms, people with fibromyalgia often suffer from other conditions as well, such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or chronic migraines.

What are the risk factors for fibromyalgia?

About two to four percent of Americans live with fibromyalgia. It affects women more often than men, according to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR). Generally, the diagnosis tends to occur in women in their 30s and 40s. Often, people with fibromyalgia live with chronic pain for years before their diagnosis.

Patients who live with fibromyalgia tend to have a few health factors in common. Here are the risk factors doctors have linked to fibromyalgia:

  • Having an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis (but remember that fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease itself)
  • Having chronic pain disorders
  • History of surgeries
  • History of infections
  • Past or present mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Past or present smoking
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Family history of fibromyalgia

Because the cause of fibromyalgia is still unclear, there’s no known cure, either. Thankfully, today's comprehensive treatment options may help manage fibromyalgia symptoms. Treatment for fibromyalgia often includes a combination of lifestyle tweaks and medication, according to ACR.

The first step is seeing your doctor. If you are living with chronic and widespread pain — even if you do not have the risk factors for fibromyalgia listed above — you should talk to a doctor. Chronic pain can be debilitating and affect your quality of life, and there are often treatments that can help.