Fibromyalgia: What It Is and How to Treat It

12/04/2017 | 6 min. read

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Are you suffering from excruciating muscle pain, overwhelming fatigue, brain fog, and maybe swelling or tingling in your hands or feet, but your doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong? Plus, no matter what you do, the symptoms don’t go away. What you’re experiencing may be a condition called fibromyalgia, a disorder that has long baffled the medical community.

What Are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?

Although it can make your muscles and bones hurt, fibromyalgia is considered by many to be a disease of the nervous system. Your nerves are not working properly so your brain perceives the sensation as muscular or skeletal pain.

You may wonder what the symptoms of fibromyalgia are since it could mimic a different condition, like arthritis. Typically, the most common symptom of fibromyalgia is pain that has lasted for more than three months. In addition to pain, other symptoms of fibromyalgia can include:

  • Fatigue,
  • Physical weakness,
  • Mental fogginess,
  • Problems sleeping,
  • Mood disorders,
  • Swelling or tingling in the extremities,
  • Morning stiffness,
  • Headaches.

Not everyone with fibromyalgia has all of these symptoms, and some can have them intermittently—such as an occasional tension headache. Others may experience restless leg syndrome or problems with elimination. And fibromyalgia symptoms in females may include particularly severe menstrual cramps.

What Causes Fibromyalgia Symptoms?

While the symptoms of fibromyalgia are well identified, the cause of the condition is not so clear. It doesn’t appear to be the result of any one thing, like a virus, but rather several factors combined.

What are the possible causes of fibromyalgia?

  • Genetics: It’s possible that genetics are involved because fibromyalgia seems to run in certain families, but identifying which genes cause the condition continues to be an area of ongoing research.
  • Infection: Evidence suggests fibromyalgia symptoms may develop following an infection. While it isn’t caused by an infection, research shows there may be some association.
  • Stress: Stress is another potential cause of fibromyalgia that researchers continue to investigate. While a link between stress and fibromyalgia appears to exist, the degree to which stress triggers the condition is still unknown. There is no doubt, however, that stress can make symptoms of fibromyalgia worse.
  • Trauma: For some people, sudden trauma may bring on fibromyalgia. For example, a person might be in a car accident and afterward develop symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Plus, researchers have discovered that people with fibromyalgia have high levels of “Substance P,” a neuropeptide chemical produced by the nerves and found in the brain and spinal cord. First discovered in 1931, Substance P is associated with inflammation, the body’s stress response, and pain. Recent studies have suggested that Substance P — like serotonin - also plays a role in anxiety and mood.

Research has also been conducted to determine whether Substance P-lowering drugs could help people with fibromyalgia feel better. But while some patients respond to that therapy, many do not.

How Do You Know If You Have Fibromyalgia?

Before researchers and physicians understood what fibromyalgia was, medical science was not certain it was a real condition. Some patients were told that their pain was “all in their head.” The reason was that fibromyalgia did not show up on X-rays or in blood tests — the traditional ways diseases were diagnosed. But today we know better, although some misconceptions about whether it’s a real condition still linger.

When you visit your doctor with symptoms, fibromyalgia is typically diagnosed with a medical history and a thorough physical examination. Typically, women are diagnosed with fibromyalgia more often than men, and people between 30 to 50 years of age tend to be more frequently affected.

In determining how fibromyalgia is diagnosed, your doctor might want you to have a blood test or other examinations to determine if there is another explanation for your pain. Your doctor might also ask about other typical fibromyalgia symptoms, such as fatigue, lack of mental clarity, restless leg syndrome, and insomnia.

How to Treat Fibromyalgia with Diet and Natural Remedies

After your doctor diagnoses your pain, you can get relief with these natural remedies for fibromyalgia:

  • Take probiotics regularly. Most of our so-called “immune system” is in our gut, so keeping your gastrointestinal health strong is crucial to your overall health and the ability to fight off fibromyalgia.
  • Use antioxidants. They promote overall good health and fight inflammation.
  • Try magnesium supplements. Taking 500 mg of magnesium daily helps to keep nerves healthy.
  • De-stress. Massages, chiropractic care, or exercise are natural remedies for fibromyalgia. Yoga, T’ai Chi, meditation, walks, stretching, swimming can also be beneficial for relieving fibromyalgia symptoms.
  • Ease pain with topical treatments. Try using a mentholated pain relief cream on areas that hurt. Helichrysum essential oil can also be rubbed on tender parts of the body or applied as part of a full-body massage.

Even with natural remedies to combat the symptoms of fibromyalgia, eating foods that reduce inflammation is also important. Fruits, vegetables, and foods with omega-3 fats like salmon, halibut, or fresh tuna can help to relieve pain. It’s also important to avoid foods that can make fibromyalgia symptoms worse.

If You Have Fibromyalgia, Avoid Eating…

  • Processed Foods: Pre-packaged foods with long shelf lives.
  • Chemicals: Steer clear of foods made with many chemical ingredients.
  • Sugar: Sugar can make inflammation and painful symptoms worse.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine can cause dehydration, worsening headaches, and other pain.
  • Alcohol: Alcoholic beverages are not recommended for people with fibromyalgia.

Medication May Relieve Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Even with a good diet, exercise, and other natural remedies, your doctor may decide to give you medication. One medication is pregabalin (Lyrica®), which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating fibromyalgia.

Pregabalin, which is also used to treat epileptic seizures, helps fibromyalgia by modifying nerve signals. Pregabalin may cause side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, swelling of the hands and feet, weight gain, and dry mouth. If you drive, talk to your doctor before you start taking pregabalin because it may interfere with your ability to drive safely.

You should also be careful about taking pregabalin if you take certain medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, insomnia, or pain. Your doctor is your best source of information about whether pregabalin is compatible with other drugs you take.

How to Treat Fibromyalgia: Discuss Treatment Options with Your Doctor

You and your doctor should decide how to treat your fibromyalgia. As a rule of thumb, natural remedies should be tried first — but that is something that you and your doctor should discuss.

Some fibromyalgia patients seek psychological counseling to help manage their condition. Fibromyalgia can be a very difficult, lifelong condition and for some people. So, it helps to have a professional to help you work through its many challenges.

Finally, it is a misconception to think that people with fibromyalgia just do not get better. It is true that there is no cure for fibromyalgia and most people with fibromyalgia must adjust to managing the condition over their lifetime. However, fibromyalgia can be managed—and many people with fibromyalgia can live healthy, happy lives and do the things they enjoy. It is important not to give up!

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Meet Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi is an internationally recognized expert in pain medicine who has spent much of his career studying what pain is, why it occurs, and how best to treat it. That experience has led him to believe strongly that there are often ways to relieve or manage pain which are overlooked or discounted, and that the most effective treatment approaches are always multi-modal.

More About Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi