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, a bee sting, or a hangover. But when pain starts happening all the time—and for no apparent reason—it can be quite disconcerting.

One pain condition whose causes doctors and researchers still struggle to understand is fibromyalgia, which causes chronic muscle pain throughout the body. Here are other causes of chronic joint pain.

“Currently, there’s no known cause for fibromyalgia,” says Anita Gupta, MD, a pain specialist at Princeton University. “However, there’s many things that can trigger fibromyalgia, and scientists are still trying to determine what they may be.”

What Fibromyalgia Looks Like for Patients

About two to four percent of Americans experience fibromyalgia, but it predominantly affects women, according to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR).

Unlike many other pain-causing conditions, fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease, and it’s not caused by inflammation. “Researchers believe that the brain processes pain sensations differently in fibromyalgia patients and amplifies those signals,” says Dr. Gupta.

Because there’s no clear cause, doctors cannot test for fibromyalgia; instead, they base the diagnosis on a patient’s symptoms and by ruling out other possible diagnoses. Patients with fibromyalgia may experience these three key symptoms:  

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble sleeping, including disruption to the important REM cycle

  • Tender areas around the body, often described as aching, burning, or soreness

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.

Risk Factors for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia most commonly is diagnosed for women between the ages of 35 to 45, according to Dr. Gupta. “Typically these patients have chronic pain before those ages, but often times the diagnosis may be missed by doctors.”

Patients who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia tend to have a few health factors in common. Here are the risk factors doctors have linked to fibromyalgia, according to Dr. Gupta.

  • History of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • History of chronic pain disorders

  • History of surgeries

  • History of infections

  • History of mental health issues like depression and anxiety 

  • Smoking

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • Obesity

  • Family history of fibromyalgia

Because the cause of fibromyalgia is still unclear, there’s no known cure, either. “With proper comprehensive treatment, we can control the symptoms of fibromyalgia effectively,” says Dr. Gupta. Treatment for fibromyalgia often includes a combination of lifestyle tweaks and medication, according to ACR.

“In order for individuals to get better from fibromyalgia, patients need to see their doctor, access the medical care system, and have comprehensive pain treatment,” says Dr. Gupta.