The most common answer to this question is…. “possibly, but we can’t say for sure … come back in 3 months time.” Not what you want to hear when your body’s wracked with aches and pains, you’re depressed, exhausted, constipated and constantly getting migraine. Fibromyalgia (FM), a condition which causes chronic muscle pain throughout the body, is thought to affect 3-6% of the world’s population, which on first glance doesn’t seem like a large percentage. When you actually add up the math though, it means that 450 million people are diagnosed with FM, and a huge 75% of those people are female.
There is, however, a further flaw in these statistics. FM is far from easy to diagnose, and a recent study concluded that two thirds of FM patients have been misdiagnosed with the condition, and could actually have something else. That’s 300 million people who have potentially been misdiagnosed with Fibromyalgia.
Firstly, there’s no definitive blood test or x-ray to confirm the diagnosis. FM falls into the category of a 'diagnosis by exclusion,’ meaning doctors have to rule out all other possibilities before being able to label it as FM. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention bases its official FM diagnosis on “symptoms that have been present for at least 3 months,” adding that "the patient does not have [another] disorder that would otherwise explain the pain”. FM shares common symptoms with many other illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis and MS to name just a few, so you can see why the diagnostic process for FM can get tricky very easily.
Secondly, Fibromyalgia is a relative newcomer to the world of chronic illnesses. It was first classified in 1990 by the American College of Rheumatology, and according to many, the diagnostic criteria set out by the College was in itself flawed. The criteria was then reviewed again in 2010 so confusion among doctors and patients is understandably widespread, further complicating the diagnosis of this illness.
These are just some of the main symptoms of FM, but the list goes on. From painful periods to numbness and tingling, the diverse range of symptoms make this a very difficult diagnostic process.
The causes of FM are just as elusive as the diagnosis but there do seem to be common triggers.
There is still a lot of research happening into the causes and treatment of FM, and one leading theory is about hormone levels. It is suggested that FM patients have developed changes in the way their central nervous systems process the pain messages from their brain due to a chemical inbalance. Research has shown that people with FM have abnormally low levels of the hormones serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine: these hormones are vital for regulating your mood, appetite and sleep and are connected with the processing of pain messages from the brain.
As a first step, put your symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker. However, even with the most common symptoms normally associated with FM you’ll notice the diagnosis doesn’t necessarily appear near the top of the list as you’ll see on this screenshot:
This reflects the point mentioned above that FM is frequently misdiagnosed in the place of other similar conditions (you may notice these appearing further up the list). Your Doctor may be able to immediately rule out some of the conditions on the list or may refer you to a specialist as it’s only when these other conditions which share FM’s symptoms have been dismissed that a diagnosis of FM can finally be made. That is why, particularly in these cases, symptom checkers and good communication with your doctor can help with diagnosis, and avoiding being wrongly diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.
With no definitive guidelines about either the diagnosis or causes of FM, it only follows that opinions on treatment options are also varied and sometimes contradictory. Usually patients resort to a combination of medication and lifestyle changes to help relieve symptoms. The standard approach in the medical profession is to offer patients a range of specialists to treat individual symptoms: namely rheumatologists to advise on muscular and joint pain, neurologists for their knowledge of the central nervous system, and mental health specialists to offer support for depression.
Increasingly, illnesses such as FM and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which are eluding the medical profession, are being successfully managed by alternative therapies. The London-based Optimum Health Clinic specializes in the treatment of illnesses such as FM as well as ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The treatment of FM can be frustrating for both patients and their physicians and it is important for people with FM to become active participants in their own health care, not just recipients. But by learning self-management techniques, they will be able to handle their symptoms more effectively and hopefully return to a lifestyle virtually free of symptoms. Education is essential for this process: local support groups and charities can be extremely beneficial in gaining greater understanding of this often misdiagnosed and misunderstood condition, and there are some success stories out there to help you remain hopeful of a recovery.
FibroFix.com and The Fibro Fix David Brady