Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia1 is a neurological disorder that causes significant and widespread pain. Those affected by fibromyalgia may experience fatigue, sleep problems, memory issues, and mood disturbances. Most patients with fibromyalgia also experience tenderness to the touch in painful areas.

It was once thought that fibromyalgia was an autoimmune disorder or that it was caused by excessive inflammation in the painful areas of the body. However, researchers no longer believe that this is the case. Instead, they now believe that fibromyalgia is neurological in nature, with its origins in the way the brain processes pain signals.

Fibromyalgia can be comorbid (appear alongside) a number of other health conditions, including tension headaches, migraines, temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more. Researchers are not yet sure about the connections between these conditions and fibromyalgia or whether there is causation in either direction when it comes to these other disorders.

In some cases, fibromyalgia develops as the result of an injury, surgery, illness, or infection. It can also result from significant psychological trauma or stress. Other times, fibromyalgia doesn’t seem to have any specific triggering event, instead coming on slowly with symptoms developing over an extended period of time.

There is no cure for fibromyalgia. However, many people affected by the condition find that a combination of medication and healthy lifestyle practices help control their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

How common is fibromyalgia?

Between 2% and 4%2 of people are affected by fibromyalgia, with at least 4 million3 adults diagnosed with the condition in the United States. Fibromyalgia is more common in women than in men and is most frequently diagnosed between the ages of 35 and 604. That being said, anyone can be diagnosed with fibromyalgia at any time.

Fibromyalgia causes

Researchers are not yet sure exactly what causes5 fibromyalgia. However, it seems to be tied to neurological processing problems in the brain.

There appear to be a number of differences between the brains of individuals with fibromyalgia and those without the condition. For one, brain scans of affected patients show abnormally high levels of neuroinflammation. Scientists believe that inflamed, or irritated, nerve cells may function differently than unaffected ones, which may contribute to the brain’s failure to effectively process pain signals. Additionally, brain scans of people affected by fibromyalgia reveal that some brain regions are abnormally shaped or smaller than researchers expect them to be.

Connections between the different parts of the brain also seem to be different in people affected by fibromyalgia. Normally, all of the areas of the brain that process pain are in constant communication with each other. In the brains of fibromyalgia patients, however, this communication is more irregular, with stopping, starting, and awkward pauses. This could make it difficult to accurately process pain signals.

All of these factors make fibromyalgia a complicated condition to understand, diagnose, and treat. It’s difficult to determine which of these factors—or combinations of factors—causes the problems associated with the disease. Researchers are continuing to study the condition in order to gain further insight into its causes and develop effective treatments.

Risk factors for fibromyalgia

There are several factors6 that put a person at a higher risk of developing fibromyalgia. These include:

  • Age: Most people affected by fibromyalgia are diagnosed between 35 and 60 years of age. Generally, the likelihood of developing the condition increases with age.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and/or lupus: People diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and/or lupus are more likely to develop fibromyalgia, too. Researchers are not sure how these conditions are connected or what changes they might cause that lead to the development of fibromyalgia.
  • Trauma or stressful events: The chances of being diagnosed with fibromyalgia go up significantly after experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. The events can range from auto accidents to divorce, job loss, assault, and more.
  • Repetitive injuries: Putting repeated stress on a joint through motion or impact increases the chances of developing fibromyalgia.
  • Biological sex: Women are about two times7 more likely to develop fibromyalgia than men.
  • Certain illnesses: Some illnesses, particularly viral infections, seem to precede a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Researchers are unsure as to what changes these infections may cause in some patients that lead to neurological issues.
  • Family history and genetics: People who have relatives with fibromyalgia are more likely to develop it themselves. However, there seems to be more than just genetics involved in the development of the condition. It’s possible that certain genes are passed on by individuals with fibromyalgia and that these genes are then turned on or off by environmental factors.
  • Obesity: People with fibromyalgia are more likely to be obese than those without the condition. Researchers are unsure as to whether obesity predisposes someone to fibromyalgia or whether it is a side effect of having fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia symptoms

The signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia can be varied and may look different for different patients. Some patients may also experience related conditions, such as IBS or TMJ. Common signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Widespread, significant pain: Most patients describe a dull ache that persists for more than three months. The majority of patients have pain on both sides of the body and both above and below the waist. Many people also experience tenderness at the achiest points on their bodies, causing these spots to be sore to the touch.
  • Fatigue: Many people affected by fibromyalgia feel exhausted even after getting plenty of sleep. While pain may cause sleep disruptions, some patients also have sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, that keep them awake at night or prevent them from falling into a deep sleep.
  • Cognitive difficulties: Patients may feel like they cannot focus or complete mentally involved tasks as well as they used to. They may describe feeling like their brains “don’t work right” or report that they can’t complete their jobs or hold conversations.
  • Morning stiffness: Stiffness may accompany pain and be localized over acutely painful spots on the body.
  • Headaches, including migraines: Many people affected by fibromyalgia suffer from tension headaches and/or migraines.
  • Painful periods: Menstrual periods may be especially painful for those with fibromyalgia.
  • Tingling and/or numbness in hands or feet: This is an additional possible symptom of neurological difficulties.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: IBS accompanies fibromyalgia in many patients.
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder: Some fibromyalgia patients also have TMJ.
  • Painful bladder syndrome: Painful bladder syndrome is another condition that can accompany fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia pain

The pain8 associated with fibromyalgia is usually described as aches that just won’t go away. This pain may come and go, but it’s generally present more often than not. When present, it can be draining (and even debilitating, when severe). Additionally, particularly painful spots on the body will likely be sensitive and hurt more when touched than they do otherwise.

In the past, patients were required to exhibit certain patterns of pain in order to receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. However, this is no longer the case. When diagnosing fibromyalgia, most specialists will consult patients about how they feel overall, listen to how they talk about their pain and symptoms, and consider other factors that are present in addition to the patient’s pain and pain patterns.

Complications from fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia can lead to a number9 of complications10, including:

  • More frequent hospitalization: While researchers are unsure why, people with fibromyalgia are more likely to be hospitalized than those without it.
  • Higher rates of depression: People affected by fibromyalgia are at least 3 times11 more likely to be depressed than their peers. It is unclear whether this is because the same neurological factors that cause fibromyalgia may contribute to depression or whether depression may result from the pain and fatigue caused by fibromyalgia.
  • Lower quality of life: Pain and fatigue can make day-to-day life difficult. As a result, people diagnosed with fibromyalgia report a significantly lower quality of life than their peers.
  • Higher rates of rheumatic conditions: Fibromyalgia tends to occur alongside rheumatic conditions (characterized by inflammation in the body’s connecting or supporting structures), such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
  • Higher death rates from suicide and injury: Adults diagnosed with fibromyalgia are more likely to die from suicide or injury than their peers. If you or a loved one is showing suicidal thoughts or actions, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
  • Inability to continue with work or school: The pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia can make work and school difficult or impossible. Many find it difficult to complete work and show up regularly and on time.
  • Higher rates of anxiety: People affected by fibromyalgia often fear injury and further pain or face anxiety over the ways that the condition affects their lives.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

You may also reach out to the Samaritans: Call or text (877) 870-HOPE (4673).

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

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