Written by Dr Claudia Pastides, 15th February 2019

Fibromyalgia is described as a widespread pain condition, often accompanied by poor sleep, tiredness and trouble with mood and memory. Between 2% and 8% of the general population are affected by fibromyalgia.

The symptoms of fibromyalgia vary between people but the most commonly experienced ones include:

  • All over body pain (sometimes worse in particular areas, such as your neck, shoulders or hips)
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Tiredness (that varies from mild to so extreme that you feel unable to do anything that day)
  • Poor sleep (rarely feeling refreshed after a night’s sleep)
  • Headaches
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (a condition that causes abdominal pain, bloating and altered bowel habit)
  • ‘Fibro-Fog`’ (trouble concentrating and remembering things)

There are also links between fibromyalgia and depression, with those suffering from fibromyalgia feeling low in mood and having little pleasure in doing things.

What does the pain of fibromyalgia feel like?

Fibromyalgia pain is often described as burning, achy or sharp and stabbing. It can also be accompanied by stiffness and a feeling as though you’ve had a really hard full-body workout at the gym (with the exhaustion to boot).

What causes fibromyalgia?

This is where the challenge lies when it comes to both diagnosing and treating fibromyalgia. We don’t know the exact cause but researchers believe the problem lies with the nervous system and the way painful sensations are processed by the brain.

Fibromyalgia is different from other common painful joint or muscle conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis or myositis) which are caused by inflammation.

There appears to be a genetic predisposition to fibromyalgia, that is then triggered by an acute illness, injury or episode of stress.

How do GPs diagnose fibromyalgia?

The lack of a “fibromyalgia test” can often make diagnosis a challenge and studies have shown that it can take a frustrating number of months and even years, plus multiple conversations with a GP, before a diagnosis of fibromyalgia is made.

Fibromyalgia isn’t diagnosable by blood tests, scans or x-rays (although sometimes these will be done in order to rule out other conditions that cause widespread pain).

It is diagnosed clinically, meaning you will be diagnosed if you have the typical symptoms associated with the disease, including:

  • Widespread pain lasting at least 3 months
  • Presence of the other symptoms mentioned earlier (fatigue, waking up tired, fibro-fog, irritable bowel, headaches)

In the past, fibromyalgia was diagnosed depending on whether you felt pain when gently squeezed over certain “tender points”, but this diagnostic method is no longer used as we know the pain of fibromyalgia comes, goes and varies.

Treatment your GP might recommend

Research and expert opinions have so far concluded that fibromyalgia requires a truly holistic approach, balancing psychological therapy, physical exercise and medication.

The most studied and recommended treatments include:

  • Exercise (physiotherapy, graded exercise, hydrotherapy)
  • Psychological treatment (in particular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
  • Medication (antidepressants, antiepileptics and pain relieving drugs)
  • Patient education (learning about the condition and how to help reduce or manage the pain and other symptoms associated with it)

Practicing self-care at home

You might feel some of these suggestions are easier said than done, but self-care is incredibly important and valuable when it comes to managing fibromyalgia.

1 - Improve your sleep

Feeling tired is one of the major symptoms of fibromyalgia and good ‘sleep hygiene’ can be beneficial. This includes trying to go to bed at a regular time every evening, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, getting into the good habit of keeping screens out of the bedroom and making your sleep environment a comfortable quiet little haven.

2 - Reduce stress

This can include giving mindfulness a go, trying some deep breathing or making adjustments in your day to day life that will reduce your exposure to the things that cause you most stress,

3 - Focus on moderation

On those especially hard and painful days it can feel difficult to get up and out or carry on with day to day life, but keeping active on the bad days is helpful. Equally it is a good idea not to over-exert yourself on those good days either. Trying to stay moderately active can improve your symptoms.

More information and support can be found here: 

NHS inform Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia Action UK