This is the second long post I have written about fibromyalgia (fm); the first concerned my experience with methadone, chronic pain, and fm. Click on “fibromyalgia” in the subject list at right to find it. There will be more in this series. Inevitably there will be some overlap between them, some repetition.
At the end of this post I will include links to some sites I think are useful. Some provide summaries, for us non-scientists, to current research; others explain the disease, give hints on living with fm, and track new drugs.
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1992, although the symptoms began about 1984. In 1980 I suffered a disk injury which caused chronic pain and poor sleep from then on. I worked at a full-time job that was physically active and psychologically stressful. By the time the disk problem was resolved (1996), ending the muscle spasms, the chronic pain/sleep problem had developed into fm.
The pieces I am posting here about fm are based solely on my experience, observation, and reading.
Five million patients with no treatment or cure
It’s hard to imagine today, but as recently as the late 1800’s there were still big blank spots on the map of the world, places unexplored save by their inhabitants who kept their knowledge to themselves.
Fibromyalgia is a big blank spot on the map of 21st century medicine. Its inhabitants comprise about 5% of the women over 18 in the United States and 0.5% of the men (data from 1995 study, see note 1). Since there are about 150,000,000 women in the US, and about 86% are 20 or older (this was the closest I could come, quickly, to the number of “women over 18”), then 86% x 150,000,000 = 129,000,000 and 4% x 129,000,000 = 5,160,000 women in the US with fm. For men (who may be under-diagnosed for various gender-based reasons such as stoicism or physician bias toward fm as a women’s disease), one-half of one percent = 645,000. Fibromyalgia is also diagnosed in those under 18, although they are not covered in these statistics. Studies indicate similar prevalence in other countries although there is a wide variance in results (from under 1% to over 10%) due perhaps to varying protocols and definitions, and the small size of some studies.
When I say there are no treatments, perhaps I should explain that. There are treatments that provide some relief of some symptoms for some patients. It is worth seeking out what works for you but don’t go broke doing it. I know of no medical treatment that works significantly for all pwfm. Remember that every drug has side effects; they vary from individual to individual, and what may be intolerable to one person is an acceptable trade-off to another. I tried Lyrica, the first drug approved specifically for fibromyalgia, and had two problems with it: by the time it began to lessen the pain, it was too sedating; and it caused unacceptable weight gain. Also, being a new drug, it was quite expensive. I hope others have better luck with it.
Current research is very promising as far as symptomatic relief and sleep improvement. Check out the sites listed at the end once in a while to keep up on things.
There is no cure. Beware of anyone making such claims. When you read of Jane Doe who has had a complete recovery with Dr. Quack’s treatment, remember: it may be she never had fm, or had only a very mild case, or is suffering from self-delusions (as in faith healing), or maybe (gasp!) she does not even exist.
What are the symptoms?
The official diagnostic symptoms are widespread musculoskeletal pain, severe fatigue, and disturbed sleep, in the absence of another provable explanation (see note 2).
This is a typical description of the condition itself:
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic pain disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal aches, pain and stiffness, soft tissue tenderness, general fatigue, and sleep disturbances. The most common sites of pain include the neck, back, shoulders, pelvic girdle, and hands, but any body part can be affected. Fibromyalgia patients experience a range of symptoms of varying intensities that wax and wane over time. [National Fibromyalgia Association]
Here’s a list of common symptoms that are considered part of fm:
Low back pain
Numbness and tingling
Jaw pain [TMJ]
Sensitivity to bright lights
Sensitivity to loud noise
Sensitivity to perfumes
Sensitivity to weather changes
Cognitive difficulties are very common: poor concentration, lack of memory, inability to locate everyday words when speaking, general confusion.
The group of pwfm is extremely varied. Some individuals have severe fm, others have milder cases. Some can work, others can’t. And any one person feels better and worse, sometimes in response to exertion or stress or the weather, sometimes due to no discernible cause. In addition, there are other very serious conditions sometimes found along with fm, such as lupus–but there’s no evidence that fm causes these other conditions.
Fibromyalgia and sleep
Sleep, for those with fibromyalgia, is officially described as “non-restorative”. This word feels inhuman and bloodless but it is accurate. People with fibromyalgia (hereafter pwfm) commonly describe their state upon awakening in the morning, as something like “feeling as if I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.” Before I heard this, before I was diagnosed, I used to say I felt as if I had been forced to run up a mountain all night and then kicked and rolled all the way back down.
The lack of restorative sleep, stage 4 sleep, may in itself be sufficient to cause the other primary symptoms which patients report: never-ending fatigue, of course, as well as overall muscular pain in which a pat can feel like a slap, inability to concentrate or remember, confusion.
Early on, a researcher (H. Moldovsky, 1995) reproduced the major symptoms of fibromyalgia in healthy young volunteers–males, as I recall–simply by depriving them of sleep. Parents of colicky infants could have probably saved him the trouble of performing the study. Having the sleep/fm connexion established, however, has not led to any substantial advances in treatment, let alone cure or prevention. No one can figure out exactly why we begin to sink into stage 4 sleep, and then are pushed back up into other less deep levels of sleep.
Without exception (as far as I know) pharmaceutical sleep aids do not promote a normal level of the stage 4 sleep (deep, slow-wave, non-REM sleep) which pwfm lack. It is certainly preferable to be unconscious in bed at night, instead of up reading in the living room for 4 or 5 hours. But sleep aided by pills doesn’t provide the rested feeling of a normal night’s sleep.
It is important not to oversimplify the association of disturbed sleep with fm. By which I mean, thinking that if only we could fix the sleep somehow, everything else would fall into place. Here are my reasons:
a) sleep may be the proximate cause of most or all of the symptoms, but it in turn may be at the end of a long chain of other things that have gone wrong, a cascade of causes.
b) Sleep, as a process, is very complicated and powerful: not only are there various stages or depths of sleep, but it interacts profoundly with the endocrine system. I won’t even add any other points of interaction with sleep, because once the endocrine system enters into the discussion as far as I can tell it is like 6 degrees of separation: now everything is connected with everything else, AND (unlike 6 degrees of separation) interacting and modifying everything else. Like a room full of kindergartners racing around all hyped up on sugary cupcakes, each one affects all the others as well as the total state of chaos. If we tie all the kindergartners to their chairs, have we ‘fixed’ this situation? If we achieve or impose ‘normal’ structures of sleep, have we ‘fixed’ fibromyalgia? There may be abnormalities in the sleep processes of pwfm that we can’t even detect, at a biochemical level. That said, obviously pwfm would be lining up in the snow to get the first tickets for that experimental ‘normal’ sleep!
PWFM: Our bodies are working differently
Many detailed studies have found specific physiological/biochemical ways in which pwfm vary from the norm: a substance that helps carry pain messages is found in abnormally high levels in their cerebro-spinal fluid; their threshold for pain is lower than that of other people; they suffer from a sleep disorder in which stage 4 sleep (most restorative stage of sleep) is continually disrupted; high levels of a nitric oxide-producing enzyme were documented by one research team to help explain why patients have exercise intolerance; excessive levels of oxidative chemicals that irritate the tissues (perhaps causing some of the constant overall pain) were found in the connective tissues in the tiny space between the muscle fibers; neurotransmitter disorders exist (serotonin and/or dopamine); atypical brain activity occurs in response to pain and other stimuli; and on and on. (For a partial list of such findings see this page on the excellent Fibromyalgia Network site.)
But, surprisingly, with all this detailed knowledge we seem no closer to real treatment or (in my dreams!) a cure. Is any of these abnormalities the “cause” of fm? For most, it doesn’t seem likely; filtering out the excess pain transmitter (Substance P ) from my cerebrospinal fluid, in some science fiction method not yet discovered, probably would not work. Whatever is causing my body to make or accumulate extra Substance P would just restore what it sees as my “norm”. Looking at this large and varied collection of anomalies, one may be the prime mover, and the rest secondary. Or, it is quite possible that we’ve not even glimpsed the “first domino” yet.
As far as I know, none of these differences from the norm are likely to become part of the process of diagnosing fm. Most are invasive and expensive, and not all of these variances would be found in all fm patients. Their value lies in directing further research, and in reassuring us that there is a physical basis for what we experience.
There does appear to be some genetic predisposition to fibromyalgia: diagnosis in mother/daughter, sister/sister, etc., is more common than is statistically likely. Now that genetic analysis has been made so much faster, research is going on to find out genes that may be associated with fm. A great development, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to help you. Individual cases of fm vary greatly in severity and symptom profile, so this seems like it will be a complicated puzzle to solve even when/if gene differences are found.
Psychological aspects of fm
Pwfm, like many other chronic disease sufferers, are sometimes treated dismissively by doctors and friends/acquaintances. The disease is unfamiliar, non-fatal, rarely puts anyone in the hospital, and invisible as far as gross physical signs. “But you don’t look sick!” we hear, and I suppose it is meant to be encouraging but it comes across as suspicion of malingering, or at least denial of how crappy we really do feel.
Speak of a heart attack, rheumatoid arthtritis, diabetes, blindness, and you’ll rarely be greeted with “Oh, yes, I had that last week, I know just how you feel, but you’ll be fine with a good night’s sleep!” But fatigue, poor memory, achy body–everyone’s experienced this, and so they think they really do understand what we, and others with invisible chronic conditions, are enduring. And their understanding is generally based on experience which was mild, like the slight dulling of memory we all experience with age; or on something which improved quickly, like pain from over-exertion. I think it is better to say little about it, in most cases. Let your family know why your abilities are not the same as they were, and ask for their help, but otherwise keep your mentions minimal.
If you must raise the subject at your job, to ask for change to part-time work, or some other adjustment at work (provide seating for you, use plastic wheelbarrows instead of steel-binned ones, provide more varied work) choose your time and place, and be prepared with a letter from your doctor about your limits as to lifting, standing, etc. Present the supervisor with solutions enabling you to continue, don’t present yourself as a problem for the supervisor to solve. He/she has one easy way to do that! [Being quite unable to work is a different situation, one which I will talk about in a future post.]
Depression is not uncommon among pwfm and this has been used against us, as proof that it is all in our heads, perhaps even some sort of not-quite-conscious choice to be sick in order to get disability or attention. Anyone who could step into the world we experience, for a week or so, would see how untenable this idea is.
Before I was diagnosed, when I thought it was just stress, or even lack of exercise, I was forced to go through a process that I likened to throwing everything possible overboard off a sinking ship. In terms of one’s life, this means everything except job and necessary life-maintenance. Nothing fun–you’re way too tired to take in a movie, do some baking, play with kids or dogs, have fun with your dearest one. Concentration and memory decline sharply, further limiting one’s activities.
I already worked a fairly physical job but thinking I needed more exercise I got a puppy so I would have to walk and be active more. How did this work? Well, I was able to train her to take off my socks at night when I got home after work and took off my boots. She’d pull them off and then hand them to me, saving me two painful bending actions. [I could have asked my dear husband to do this, and he would have done so willingly, but I resisted things that would have made me feel more damaged than I already felt.] But the more exercise part was not helpful. Still, she was a lovely dog and worth all the extra exercise.
Anyway, depression seems like a very normal reaction for someone who has thrown overboard nearly all the enjoyable parts of life, is exhausted and in pain all the time, and has no hope for improvement (as you do after a terrible bout of the flu, which brings a similar exhaustion though not the overall pain).
If I’ve just lost my entire beloved family in a car crash, nobody except a reporter is going to ask me how I feel; anybody with a heart knows how I must feel and accepts it as entirely normal. This is depressive feeling arising from circumstances. Fortunately, our minds have ways to lessen, over time, the depression that results from the losses common to human life. Deep sadness and regret remain, but feeling a paralyzing loss of life’s significance, of its savor, gradually lessens with the passing of months or years for most people.
However, humans haven’t evolved ways to mute the depression from ongoing life-robbing conditions. Being a quadraplegic, being in a concentration camp, having severe diseases such as lupus, PTSD, or rheumatoid arthritis, these are a daily assault on the core of one’s being and one’s desire to live. Naturally, people get depressed, whether they try to hide it or not. [Please note that I am not setting up any comparisons of suffering here! I’m not saying x is like y or a is worse than b.)
There is considerable research to support the assertion that depression does not precede, and therefore perhaps cause, fibromyalgia: for instance, pwfm are no more likely than others to have been depressed prior to having the symptoms of fm; the degree of depression has no quantitative relation to the degree of pain; and chronic pain sufferers as a group, regardless of cause of pain, have a high rate of depression. I cite only one study (see note 3) but there are others.
A few practical recommendations
Another reason that depression and fibromyalgia have gotten connected in the minds of doctors is that, early on, it was found that certain anti-depressants seemed to relieve some of the pain of fm. Sometimes they do help, sometimes not. Maybe it’s placebo effect, maybe not. If you are offered anti-depressants for the relief of symptoms other than depression, be sure to discuss with the doctor what happens if this doesn’t provide relief, or if the side-effects (often weight gain is a potential side effect, and that makes you more tired) are intolerable. Make another appointment for evaluation of the treatment.
You must find a doctor who will work with you long-term, not one who writes a prescription and then feels his/her duty is done. Accept that fm, more than most conditions, demands that the patient take a very active role. A well-read fm patient is often more familiar with the disease and available treatments than her doctor is. That has been my experience and I have heard/read it from many others.
Find a doctor who can accept new information from a patient; bring in articles from medical or fm journals (not just news reports); and be diplomatic but firm if you really want to try something (or really don’t want to try something the doctor is pressing upon you). Learn from your doctor, ask questions. Educate yourself, learn coping mechanisms, stay away from anything that claims to “cure” this condition. When a cure arrives, believe me, we’ll all hear about it from many authoritative sources, not just from a TV report or the individual champions of a new herb or drug!
And as with any chronic condition, it is extremely useful to keep some sort of a daily journal: doctors and insurance companies really like record-keeping, and it will help you understand, for example, whether a given treatment is not helping or if the problem is that you had house-guests one week and worked overtime the next. No long entries needed, better two lines every day than two pages once a week. Rate your pain, your feeling of ‘functionality’, and your fatigue, from 1-10 (average for the day); note unusual events that could affect how you feel; note any variations in sleep such as getting to bed late, extra trouble sleeping, too painful to sleep. Okay, maybe that makes 3 lines, but if you can make yourself do it you will find it invaluable in dealing with your doctor, with any possible disability situation, and even with your fibromyalgia: it will give you a small feeling of control in that you can look for connexions, for cause and effect, for trends.
Don’t give up. Your ailment is not your life. Don’t let it consume you.
Every person on this planet lives his/her life within some sort of limitations: intellect, means, education, health, social strictures or upheaval, and so on. If fm is one of your limitations, take it on. (The other choice is…?) Be flexible and smart and keep fine-tuning what makes you feel better (or less bad). Seek out the joys of life. Be as active as you can be physically and mentally, and don’t become self-absorbed. When you have a really bad day remember it won’t last forever (you may want to write this on the wall).
1.Wolfe, F et al. Prevalence of characteristics of fibromyalgia in the general population. Arthritis and Rheumatism 38:19-28, 1995.
2. The formal diagnostic criteria, established in 1990 by the American College of Rheumatology, are:
1. A history of widespread pain in all four quadrants of the body for a minimum duration of three months.
2. Pain in at least 11 of 18 designated tender points when the doctor applies four kilograms of pressure.
3. Giesecke T, Gracely RH, Williams DA, et al. The relationship between depression, clinical pain, and experimental pain in a chronic pain cohort. Arthritis Rheum 2005; 52:1577-1584
The Fibromalgia Information Foundation Information is provided by clinicians and researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon, USA and invited specialists from other locations. OHSU has an excellent clinic and research effort dedicated to fm (based on my personal experience).
The American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association, Inc. (directly funds research)
Adornment to a Roman legionary’s horse harness; copper alloy with glass mosaic. First century AD? Source.