By John T. Ader, M.D., Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton
A lack of energy, poor sleep habits, joint or muscle pain and stiffness can simply be your body’s way of telling you to slow down and get some rest from your overloaded schedule. But long-lasting symptoms can also be signs of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that affects as many as one in 50 Americans, mostly women.
What’s causing your pain?
Getting diagnosed is the first step to finding relief from fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia isn’t a life-threatening disorder, but it’s tricky to identify since pain and fatigue tend to develop slowly and are symptoms of many health-related conditions. Unfortunately, there are no tests that can confirm fibromyalgia’s presence.
Instead, your doctor will determine whether you suffer from fibromyalgia based on your symptoms. “The most common signs include widespread pain in the body that lasts three months or more, and pain or tenderness in at least 11 of 18 points on your body when pressure is applied,” says Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton rheumatologist John T Ader, DO “Pain and tenderness mainly affect the neck, back, shoulders, pelvis and knees. A family history of fibromyalgia may be another clue that you have the disorder.” Expect a diagnosis to take some time over the course of several doctor’s visits while he or she rules out other causes of your symptoms.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes fibromyalgia. They suspect that abnormal sensory processing in the central nervous system and irregularities in the hypothalamus, a master gland in the brain, amplifies pain in fibromyalgia sufferers. While no cure exists, you can do a lot to reduce the condition’s debilitating symptoms.
See your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe medication that fights pain, boosts energy and mood, relaxes tense muscles, improves sleep or treats specific symptoms such as headaches and intestinal problems.
Consider alternative and complementary therapies. Ask your doctor about the pain-relieving benefits of exercise, physical therapy, water therapy, therapeutic massage, counseling, biofeedback, acupressure and acupuncture.
Improve your sleep habits. Schedule regular sleep hours. Sleep in a comfortable bed in a dark, quiet, cool bedroom. Avoid sleep disruptors such as caffeine, sugar, heavy meals and alcohol before bed. “The process of going to sleep should begin approximately one hour before bedtime every night. A sleep program should be initiated that focuses on avoiding stress and sending signals to the brain that it is time to rest,” recommends Dr Ader.
Exercise regularly. Exercise eases pain, reduces fatigue and helps you sleep better. “Choosing an exercise you enjoy will make it more likely you will make a habit out of it,” explains Dr Ader. Try low-impact aerobics like walking or bicycling—but avoid overdoing it or you can intensify pain.
Eat well. A healthy, balanced diet gives you more energy and helps you avoid other health problems.
Make changes on the job. Most people with fibromyalgia continue to work, but some cut back on hours or find a less demanding job. Determine what changes might make your job more comfortable, like getting a new chair.
Get support. Because fibromyalgia can be so debilitating, it can harm a sufferer’s personal and professional relationships. Counseling can help keep relationships strong; a support group can offer treatment information and emotional support.
“Treating fibromyalgia requires persistence and patience. Combining an exercise program with a sleep program can result in significant benefits over the long-term,” says Dr. Ader.