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Man showing signs of pain in the shoulder.

Man showing signs of pain in the shoulder.
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Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes pain in the muscles and bones. Other common symptoms are feeling tired and sleeping poorly.

Some people also feel vague and even confused at times. Fibromyalgia is common and affects around 2-5% of the population, mainly young to middle-aged women.

What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?

The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia are:

  • pain in many different muscles and bones
  • tenderness or stiffness in the muscles or bones, lasting for at least 3 months
  • tiredness
  • difficulties in sleeping.

Other symptoms and related conditions may include:

  • problems with concentration and memory
  • anxiety, depression or emotional distress
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • headaches
  • numbness and tingling in the arms and legs.

People with fibromyalgia often find their symptoms change over time. The symptoms may be worse during times of psychological, social or physical stress.

What causes fibromyalgia?

The cause of fibromyalgia is not completely understood, but it seems that fibromyalgia is a problem with the brain, rather than the muscles and bones. For some reason, the brain of someone with fibromyalgia is very sensitive to certain things. It feels them as pain, where other people would not. This does not mean that the pain is not real – simply that the pain originates in the brain, not the muscle and bone.

Fibromyalgia is thought to be related to other ‘sensitivity syndromes’, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities and irritable bowel syndrome.

How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

Fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose. There is no single test or examination that says the pain is caused by fibromyalgia.

People suspected of having fibromyalgia may have blood tests and x-rays – part of the aim of this is to look for other possible causes of pain in the muscles and bones.

But really, it comes down to a doctor thinking that the pattern of pain and tiredness fits fibromyalgia, and doesn’t fit other conditions.

How is fibromyalgia treated?

There is no cure for fibromyalgia but most people find they are able to ease some of the pain and tenderness with the right approach. It’s important to learn about fibromyalgia and play an active role in your treatment.

Regular exercise reduces pain and tiredness, and improves sleep in people with fibromyalgia. Exercise should be introduced slowly and gradually – water-based exercise (hydrotherapy) may be a good place to start. A physiotherapist can help you design the right exercise program.

Getting enough sleep is important. Setting aside plenty of time for sleep, reducing tea and coffee after lunch, relaxing before bed and getting up at much the same time each day can all help.

Psychological approaches work. These include learning how to manage stress, learning how to plan and pace your life, and therapies such as mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT.

The usual painkillers, such as paracetamol, are not usually helpful. Some people with fibromyalgia may find that their pain or other symptoms can be controlled with medicines that are sometimes used to treat epilepsy or depression.

Some medicines originally developed to treat epilepsy, such as pregabalin and gabapentin, have been shown to help reducing pain. Pregabalin is not on the PBS so will not be subsidized in Australia and can be expensive. Many fibromylagia patients get referrals to pain clinics or hospital outpatient services.

More information

You can get more information from speaking to your doctor or specialist, and from the Arthritis Australia website.

Last reviewed: October 2016

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This summary of a Cochrane review presents what we know from research about the effect of acupuncture on fibromyalgia.

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Fibromyalgia is a condition in which people experience symptoms that include widespread pain and tenderness in the body, often accompanied by fatigue and problems with memory and concentration.

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