What is Fibromyalgia?

by Stephanie Brail

Fibromyalgia is a disease that involves chronic pain as well as chronic fatigue. There's a reason that fibromyalgia is often lumped in with chronic fatigue syndrome: It's because the two may be different aspects of the same disease. Even if that ends up being not the case, many patients with fibromyalgia also seem to be diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Both syndromes have no known cause, both affect women more than men, and both include debilitating fatigue as a main symptom. Thus, the two are inextricably linked.

Fibromyalgia has been around since the 1800s and has been known as muscular rheumatism as well as fibrositis, chronic muscle pain syndrome, and tension myalgias.

Estimates of how many people in the United States have fibromyalgia vary. Some Internet rumors claim that the number is as high as 30 million in the United States alone. The more official, conservative estimate is approximately 3-6% of the United States population, putting it on par with chronic fatigue syndrome in terms of numbers. (Additionally, it's uncertain how many of those are patients who have been diagnosed with just one or both.)


Fibromyalgia distinguishes itself chronic fatigue syndrome by the main symptom of chronic pain. This pain occurs in the muscles, joints, and ligaments and tendons. The pain may vary in intensity and can range from dull aches to intense, sharp, shooting pains.

Additional symptoms are very similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, and include fatigue, sleep disturbances, irritable bowel syndrome, increased sensitivity to chemicals, and depression. It is interesting to note that the sleep disorders seen in fibromyalgia can be slightly different from chronic fatigue syndrome and include restless leg syndrome as a key component, as opposed to straight insomnia. (Some researchers speculate that movement-oriented sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome may in fact cause the pain experienced in fibromyalgia.

Who is at Risk?

Like chronic fatigue syndrome, women are more likely to get fibromyalgia than men. Fibromyalgia tends to occur in early to middle adulthood. It does run in families, and those with existing rheumatic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to get fibromyalgia.

Possible Causes

Like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia has no known cause. One of the latest theories is that of "central sensitization," which suggests that the brain has an increased sensitivity to pain signals. Some speculate that fibromyalgia may be due to a spinal injury or even a bacterial infection. Others are exploring the theory that the sleeping disorder "symptom" of fibromyalgia may in fact be a central cause. Like chronic fatigue syndrome, it is possible that there's not just one cause, but the disease is due to a variety of factors all working in concert to deplete the body's energy.


There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but treatments exist to ease the pain. Over the counter pain medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are often recommended by doctors for fibromyalgia pain relief. Antidepressants and other prescription pain medications and muscle relaxants are also prescribed. Cognitive behavioral therapy is additionally utilized to help with the emotional impact of the illness. Talk to your doctor to find the right treatment for you.

Special Considerations

The surrounding environment can have a tremendous impact on fibromyalgia patients. Fibromyalgia symptoms can flare up during times of stress or even when the weather changes. Cold weather can exacerbate symptoms. Loud noises, odors, and other types of environmental chaos can negatively impact a patient.


Fibromyalgia, like chronic fatigue syndrome, can be an "invisible disease." A patient might look perfectly fine to friends and co-workers but feel terrible on the inside. Many advocacy groups exist that are actively working to support new research initiatives and educate the public.


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(2007). Fibromyalgia Symptoms. Retrieved August 13, 2007, from Fibromyalgia Network Web site: http://www.fmnetnews.com/basics-symptoms.php

(2007). The Facts About Fibromyalgia. Retrieved August 13, 2007, from HealthLink Medical College of Wisconsin Web site: http://healthlink.mcw.edu/article/926046887.html

(2007). Fibromyalgia. Retrieved August 13, 2007, from National Fibromyalgia Association Web site: http://www.fmaware.org/site/PageServer?pagename=fibromyalgia