Fibromyalgia, Explained in Just 2 Minutes

Fibro may not damage the body, but it still may hinder your quality of life.

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When you’re in pain, it tends to be caused by a few specific reasons. For example, your back or your throat might hurt due to inflammation, your knuckles or knees might hurt due to a joint disorder like rheumatoid arthritis, or your ankle might hurt because you sprained it while playing tennis.

But then there’s fibromyalgia, a syndrome that causes chronic and widespread pain all over the body. What makes fibromyalgia so mysterious is that there is no obvious cause: You won’t find any damage to the body on X-rays or MRIs, and you won’t find evidence of inflammation. Still, people with fibro experience constant pain that disrupts their daily lives.

Fibromyalgia may come and go in episodes called “flares.” Stress or hormonal changes (such as during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy) can trigger a flare. During these episodes, symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Tenderness

  • Aching in muscles and joints

  • Constant fatigue

  • Sensitivity to temperature

  • Sleep problems

  • Memory problems

Doctors have some theories behind the throbs of fibromyalgia. It might have something to do with a kink in the central nervous system (CNS)—a miscommunication between the brain and spinal cord, which are key players in pain perception. (Hence why epidurals during childbirth are injected into the spinal space.)

This malfunction of the CNS causes amplified sensations of pain for people with fibromyalgia, causing them to interpret pain when they shouldn’t. For example, some people with fibro are extremely sensitive to temperatures, so the cold air on their skin might actually feel painful.

Researchers believe fibromyalgia may be triggered by a stressful event, including physical stress like an injury or emotional stress like childhood abuse. Interestingly, this syndrome primarily affects women: They are twice as likely to have fibromyalgia than men. Learn more about risk factors for fibromyalgia here.

Treating fibro is tricky since there is no obvious cause. Usually, people with fibromyalgia can find some relief with the following treatments and lifestyle changes, according to the American College of Rheumatology:

  • Psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy: Therapy for fibro can help patients learn ways to tweak their thoughts and behaviors, which has been shown to help reduce fibro pain. 

  • Good sleep habits: Fibro can hurt sleep, and lack of sleep can make fibro symptoms worse. Thus, prioritizing good sleep hygiene can help manage fibromyalgia

  • Stress management: Having fibromyalgia (as with any chronic condition) is inherently stressful, but managing your stress levels appears to lessen fibro symptoms. Learn more about stress and fibromyalgia here.

  • Gentle exercise and stretching: Despite the perception of pain, it’s safe and encouraged to stay physically active. Low-impact workouts like yoga and Tai Chi may be helpful.

  • Medications: Some medications for fibromyalgia are available, such as antidepressants and meds that hinder perception of pain. Opioid pain medications are not useful or recommended for people with fibromyalgia. 

Although fibromyalgia doesn’t batter the body, it can still hinder your quality of life if left untreated. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing pains that you can’t explain, since fibromyalgia may be to blame.