Lana first started feeling pain in her muscles during her junior year of high school. With all her schoolwork, playing sports, and keeping up with her friends, Lana felt like she was under a lot of stress. Before long she had trouble getting enough sleep. She was tired and cranky all the time, and her whole body ached.
Lana assumed the pain was from all the stress she was going through. But when it didn’t go away after 3 months, her mom called a doctor. The doctor examined Lana and told her she had a condition called fibromyalgia.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain in a person’s muscles, joints, and other soft tissues. The pain is widespread — meaning the person feels pain all over his or her body. In addition to body pain, people with fibromyalgia often have headaches. They may have tender spots — areas of the body that hurt when pressed on. They also may feel tired and have trouble sleeping.
If you have fibromyalgia, you’re not alone. It affects millions of people in the United States. Most people with fibromyalgia are women between the ages of 20 and 50. But it can start when people are in their teens or younger.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, meaning it goes on for a while. But symptoms don’t always stay the same. Sometimes pain or fatigue can be mild. Other times they are severe enough to interfere with life. Teens with fibromyalgia may go to school regularly, but what they are able to do depends on how severe their symptoms are.
There is no cure for fibromyalgia. But doctors can treat the pain and other symptoms so they’re not as bad.
What Happens When Someone Has Fibromyalgia?
Most teens with fibromyalgia have pain throughout their bodies. Usually the pain is dull or burning. Sometimes it can be more of a shooting or throbbing pain. People also may have headaches and body pain.
People with fibromyalgia usually have tender spots — areas of the body that hurt when someone presses on them. Common tender spots include:
- the back of the head
- between the shoulder blades
- the top of the shoulders
- the upper chest
- the front of the neck
- the outer hips
- the inner knees
- the elbows
People with fibromyalgia often feel fatigue (extremely tired or low on energy). Because of this, fibromyalgia can sometimes be mistaken for something called chronic fatigue syndrome. Sometimes people can have both conditions.
In addition to pain and fatigue, most teens with fibromyalgia have trouble sleeping. They may wake up frequently during the night and feel exhausted in the morning. They also can have problems like restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea, which can add to their sleep difficulties.
After living with fibromyalgia, people might start noticing that specific things make pain and other symptoms worse. For some, it might be stress. For others, it could be cold, damp weather. Everyone’s different.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Doctors aren’t really sure why people get fibromyalgia. They do know that the brains of people with fibromyalgia sense pain differently than other people’s brains. They might feel pain in response to things (like stress) that aren’t normally painful.
There are chemicals in our brains called neurotransmitters. They help send messages between nerve cells in the brain. People with fibromyalgia may have abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in the part of the brain that signals pain.
Another theory about fibromyalgia is that the nerve endings that help transmit pain signals to the brain might be too sensitive and react too strongly to pain signals.
Many experts believe that outside events — like illness, injuries, or emotional trauma — can play a role in fibromyalgia. Because fibromyalgia can run in families, it’s also possible that genes may increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.
How Do Doctors Diagnose It?
Because fibromyalgia is a cluster of different symptoms, it’s not always easy to diagnose.
There’s no specific test for fibromyalgia. So doctors might do tests to rule out other conditions or problems. For example, fatigue can be a sign of a thyroid problem. So a doctor may do thyroid tests. If the tests show a person’s thyroid is normal, the doctor will know something else is causing the fatigue.
Because fibromyalgia is complicated, doctors look at several things. A doctor will start by asking about a person’s medical history and symptoms (like pain or fatigue). The doctor will probably also check for 18 common tender spots. Most kids and teens who have fibromyalgia feel pain in at least five of these spots when the doctor presses on them.
If there is no swelling, no sign of other health problems, and the patient has had widespread pain for at least 3 months, doctors may decide it’s fibromyalgia.
Diagnosing fibromyalgia can take a while (sometimes years). That can get pretty frustrating. Don’t give up. You may need to find a doctor who specializes in or understands the condition.
There’s no cure for fibromyalgia. But treatment can help manage symptoms, minimize pain, and improve a person’s overall health and quality of life. Treatments for fibromyalgia include both lifestyle changes and medications.
Most doctors ask people to start with lifestyle changes before turning to medications. Some of the changes doctors may recommend are:
- Regular exercise. Exercise may increase pain at first, but it can help make things better if it is done gradually and regularly. Some people benefit from working with a physical therapist. Stretching and relaxation exercises (like yoga) can also help.
- Stress-relief methods. These can include yoga, t’ai chi, and other disciplines, as well as light massage, breathing exercises, and acupuncture.
- More sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the most effective ways to treat fibromyalgia. It can help to avoid caffeine, sugary beverages, and sugary snacks right before bedtime. It can also help to go to bed and get up at the same time each day and limit napping during the daytime.
- Healthy lifestyle choices. Eating healthy foods can help with fibromyalgia. Doing things you love can help too. Hobbies and other activities don’t just make people feel good about themselves, they can also distract people from the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
If lifestyle changes don’t help on their own, a doctor may prescribe medications. Some of the medicines used to treat fibromyalgia are:
- Pain relievers. Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium can help ease the pain and stiffness caused by fibromyalgia. If these don’t help, doctors may write a prescription for pain relievers.
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants treat more than depression. Doctors sometimes prescribe them to ease pain and fatigue and help people sleep better.
- Anti-seizure medications. Some medicines used to treat epilepsy are also useful in treating fibromyalgia symptoms.
- Sleeping aids. These allow you to get a better night’s sleep, which can relieve many of fibromyalgia’s symptoms.
Therapy also helps with fibromyalgia. A psychotherapist or counselor can help people learn how to deal with difficult emotions, recognize what makes fibromyalgia symptoms worse, and take action to keep those symptoms in check.
If you have fibromyalgia, it can help to join a support group or online community for people living with the condition. That way, you can share what you’re going through with people who know what it’s like.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: September 2012