What Exactly Is Fibromyalgia? A Pain Doctor Explains

There’s a lot left to learn, but here are the facts on this chronic pain condition.

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To an outsider, a patient with fibromyalgia may appear healthy and “just fine.” There’s no cast or crutches, no marks on the skin, no obvious physical disability. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

“Many of these individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia on a day-to-day basis have no clear, visible symptoms to the outside world,” says Anita Gupta, MD, pain specialist at Princeton University. “Unfortunately, this can stigmatize them.”

Many of the estimated 5 million patients with fibromyalgia feel like they have to prove that they are in physical pain and not just being “dramatic.” The mysterious nature of fibromyalgia—with no proven cause—can making living with fibromyalgia even more confusing and frustrating.   

The Evolution of Fibromyalgia

Doctors’ understanding of fibromyalgia has shifted over the years. Originally, fibromyalgia was categorized under the umbrella term rheumatism, which is now known to include hundreds of different diagnoses. It wasn’t until 1906 that the term fibrositis was coined, followed by fibromyalgia in 1976.

The name fibromyalgia allegedly came from an American rheumatologist named Mohammed Yunus. It comes from the Latin fibra (fiber or thread), the Greek mys (muscle), and the Greek algos (pain).

Separating fibromyalgia from other rheumatic conditions symbolizes a shift in how doctors viewed the cause of fibromyalgia. Unlike other rheumatic conditions, fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune or inflammatory condition.

Today, researchers consider fibromyalgia a condition that affects the central nervous system. “It may be a combination of biological, psychological, and genetic reasons why people have fibromyalgia,” says Dr. Gupta.

The Telltale Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread pain, often occurring at “tender points” around the body that are sensitive to touch and pressure. Patients will also usually present symptoms of fatigue and trouble sleeping. Here are more symptoms of fibromyalgia to look for.

“Doctors will typically diagnose patients with fibromyalgia by applying firm pressure on these areas of tender points,” says Dr. Gupta. “If patients demonstrate that they have pain on these tender points, that could indicate that they have fibromyalgia.”

There are a few co-existing conditions linked to fibromyalgia. Many individuals also experience mood and mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as restless legs syndrome and gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome.

No blood test or X-ray can diagnose fibromyalgia. This distinguishes it from similar conditions that can cause chronic pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis.

“Usually doctors will keep fibromyalgia as a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning it will be the last diagnosis to consider when all other serious conditions are excluded,” says Dr. Gupta.  

How to Treat and Manage Fibromyalgia

Although researchers have found a few medications that can help reduce fibromyalgia pain and improve symptoms, no cure for fibromyalgia currently exists.

By seeing your doctor, you can learn about lifestyle changes that can minimize the effects of fibromyalgia. For example, sticking to a consistent sleep pattern, meditation, and low-impact exercise may help decrease fibromyalgia symptoms, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Find out more about treating fibromyalgia here.

“With proper, comprehensive treatment, we can control the symptoms of fibromyalgia effectively,” says Dr. Gupta. “It’s important to be active and to seek treatment.”