Article by Stuart McClymont
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes widespread pain in the muscles of the body and fatigue. People with fibromyalgia have number of “tender points” on the body and an increased sensitivity to various things that are not normally painful or unpleasant. They can also experience high levels of fatigue that are disproportionate to their activity levels and sleep.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is estimated to affect about 5% of the population and tends to occur in women much more than men. The difficult thing about fibromyalgia is
that there is no known cause, it isn’t an inflammatory disease, it isn’t a degenerative disease and it isn’t and autoimmune disease. This makes it
difficult to diagnose and treat.
The onset of fibromyalgia has been linked to:
- a traumatic event that caused a physical injury
- stressful/ traumatic life event such as a car accident or bereavement
- disease/ illness - sudden onset illness or chronic illness (i.e IBS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis)
- sleep disturbance.
The symptoms of Fibromyalgia vary for each individual but the most common symptoms are:
- Widespread muscle pain, stiffness and tenderness in the muscles and joints (see picture above)
- Fatigue - often disproportionate to the person’s level of activity or amount of sleep
- Restless sleep or awakening after a long sleep and feeling tired for the rest of the day
- Anxiety, depression\\Disturbances in bowel function
- Poor memory or a feeling of brain “foggyness”
What are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
These symptoms ‘feed’ of each other, as demonstrated in the following diagram:
- Pain, stiffness, tiredness and tenderness of the muscles, tendons, and joints.
- Restless sleep, awakening feeling tired, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, and disturbances in bowel function.
How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
The symptoms of fibromyalgia can be associated with many conditions or diseases, making it difficult to diagnose. Diagnosis is usually made by your doctor or rheumatologist after ruling out other diagnoses. As well as palpating a number of sensitive points around your body your doctor may perform blood tests, scans and x-rays to rule out other causes of pain.
Conditions that can mimic the features of fibromyalgia include an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), vitamin D deficiency, rheumatoid arthritis and
even sleep apnoea.
The management of fibromyalgia is complex, but can be broken down into a number of parts. Treatment tries to help you slowly break the fibromyalgia cycle
by addressing each of the points shown in the diagram above.
Understanding your pain and symptoms through education
- Having a good understanding of your symptoms and how your life has, and is, being affected by fibromyalgia is vitally important. Also having a good
assessment of your painful areas can help reduce anxiety or concerns that you have an injury.
- Understanding the complex nature and cycles of pain can also help you address the impact fibromyalgia has on your life.
- Physiotherapy can help with both these aspects of understanding Fibromyalgia.
Exercise in moderation
Exercise, is an excellent way to help deal with stress and depression. Regular exercise also helps to improve eating and sleeping habits, which will lead
to better general health, better mental health and less sleep deprivation.
- Activities such as hydrotherapy, tai chi, pilates, yoga, walking, swimming or cycling can benefit people with fibromyalgia
- stretching and mobility exercises can help reduce pain and tightness
- specific exercises to help build strength and endurance in the ‘posture’ muscles of the body, and take the load off achy muscles
In some cases your GP may prescribe medications such as an antidepressant to help normalise chemical imbalances and also improve pain.
Relief of muscle and joint stiffness, tenderness and pain
- Massage - can assist pain relief and help muscle relaxation
- Acupuncture - can be helpful in the relief of your pain
- Joint mobilisation - can improve muscle tightness, tenderness and joint stiffness
Managing activity levels and fatigue
- Fibromyalgia symptoms can fluctuate, meaning that you can good and bad days. Sometimes overdoing it one day can lead to increased symptoms the next
day, so being able to manage your effort is important.
- Pacing activities and doing activity/ fatigue diaries can help manage the fluctuations in activity and assist a person to achieve their goals
Improve ability to cope with daily stress and depression
Daily stresses from work or home can increase your fibromyalgia symptoms. You and your physiotherapist can work with your GP to help you develop strategies
to manage these stresses.
Referral to a psychologist can also help in developing strategies to cope with stressful situations
Understanding sleep and its influence on health is vital in helping people who suffer from Fibromyalgia. Poor sleep health can affect:
- Mood - Sleep benefits our mood, memory and concentration
- Brain function - Sleep helps to organize memories and improve concentration.
- Emotion - Lack of sleep can make you irritable, affecting your emotions, social interaction, and decision making.
- Immune system - Without adequate sleep, the immune system becomes weak, and the body becomes more vulnerable to infection and disease.
- Nervous system - Sleep is a time of rest and repair to neurons. During Sleep neurons rest, replenish and grow
- Hormones - substances produced to trigger or regulate particular body functions, are timed to release during sleep or right before sleep.
Surgery is not used to treat fibromyalgia. However, if a doctor or specialist felt there was a problem that needed surgery, and this was influencing your
fibromyalgia, then surgery for that specific problem may be an option.
What Results Can You Expect?
Over time, with good advice and commitment to a patient centred management programme the symptoms of fibromyalgia can ease and reduce the levels of pain
If you have any concerns or have some specific questions regarding your condition, please ask your physiotherapist.
More Advice about Fibromyalgia
If you have any concerns or have some specific questions regarding your condition, please ask your physiotherapist or health practitioner.
Early Injury Treatment
How to Ease Arthritic Pain
Acupuncture and Dry Needling
Active Foot Posture Correction Exercises
Balance Enhancement Exercises
Proprioception & Balance Exercises
Soft Tissue Massage
Brace or Support
Electrotherapy & Local Modalities
Joint Mobilisation Techniques
Supportive Taping & Strapping
FAQs about Fibromyalgia
Common Physiotherapy Treatment Techniques
What is Pain?
Physiotherapy & Exercise
When Should Diagnostic Tests Be Performed?
Massage Styles and their Benefits
How Does Kinesiology Tape Reduce Swelling?
Headache or Migraine... What to do?
Heat Packs. Why does heat feel so good?
How Much Treatment Will You Need?
What are the Benefits of Good Posture?
What are the Common Massage Therapy Techniques?
What are the Healthiest Sleeping Postures?
What are the Signs of an Unsupportive Pillow?
What Can You Do To Help Arthritis?
What is a TENS Machine?
What is Chronic Pain?
What is Nerve Pain?
What is Osteoarthritis?
What is the Correct Posture Standing?
What is the Correct Way to Sit?
What's the Benefit of Stretching Exercises?
When Can You Return to Sport?
Helpful Products for Fibromyalgia
Whilst exercise is very important to help manage your symptoms, sometimes your body can feel quite fatigued. At times like this you may benefit from
short term use of a supportive brace, such as a low back or upper back support.
It is important that your brace is used as a training tool. Too much use can lead to over-reliance on the brace and de-conditioning or your muscles.
Please consult your physiotherapist about how best to utilise a brace for fibromyalgia.
TENS machines and heat packs can also help to provide relief for tired, achy muscles.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Facet Joint Pain
Hand or Wrist Arthritis
Hip Arthritis (Osteoarthritis)
Neck Arm Pain
Sacroiliac Joint Pain
Spondylosis (Spine Arthritis)