What is Fibromyalgia and what are the symptoms?
Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition affecting the muscles and soft tissues of the body. It may also be referred to as fibromyalgia syndrome, fibrositis and/or fibromyositis. It is characterised by chronic muscle pain and tenderness, increased sensitivity to pain, extreme fatigue/tiredness, muscle stiffness and sleep disturbances. Fibromyalgia can also have cognitive effects such as ‘fibro fog’, where individuals struggle with memory and concentration. Depression may be associated with the condition and whilst there is no clear cause and effect relationship, symptoms such as disturbed sleep and constant pain may cause or worsen mental health difficulties. Symptoms may worsen and improve at times linked to factors such as stress levels, physical activity levels and/or changes in the weather.
When does it develop?
Fibromyalgia most commonly develops age 30-50 and it affects around 7 times more women than men. It can, however, occur at any age including in children and the elderly. Due to difficulties around diagnosis (see below), it’s very difficult to say for certain how many people are affected by the condition although it’s widely becoming thought of as far more common than once thought.
What are the causes of fibromyalgia?
Whilst the exact cause of fibromyalgia is not known, there are several factors that have been linked to causing or triggering the condition. It’s widely thought to be related to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain and changes in the way the central nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and nerves) processes pain messages. Genetics are likely involved too as somebody with a close family member who suffers from fibromyalgia is more likely to develop the condition themselves. Previous infections may be linked to triggering the condition and it may also commonly occur alongside conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Fibromyalgia may be associated with physical or emotional trauma and high stress levels may also contribute as there are many cases known to be triggered by such events.
How is it diagnosed and treated?
There is no single diagnostic test to identify fibromyalgia and so diagnosis may often involve a process of elimination of other conditions with similar symptoms. For this reason, somebody may be tested for options such as rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid functioning as well as a total blood count to eliminate any other underlying issues. One confirming factor for diagnosis may be widespread pain lasting for at least 3 months without any other underlying cause. Doctors may also examine the body for symptoms such as swollen joints which may suggest conditions such as arthritis as opposed to fibromyalgia.
Treatments can help to manage the condition but there is currently no known cure and so fibromyalgia can be considered a life-long condition. Healthcare professionals will work with individuals to develop a personalised care plan that may include medication, therapy (both physical such as physiotherapy and psychological such as counselling) and lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise.
The main focus of treatment is to reduce pain and improve the quality of life. Below are some top tips for amending your lifestyle to support treatment of fibromyalgia:
- Get enough sleep! This can help to manage extreme tiredness and to give the body and mind chance to rest and recover. Try sticking to a relaxing bedtime routine such as reducing screen time before sleep, having a warm bath or shower, journaling or practicing some gentle yoga or breathing exercises. For more on creating an evening routine for optimum sleep quality and quantity, see our previous blog on sleep!
- Find techniques and habits to reduce and manage emotional and mental stress. This could include doing a ‘life audit’ and eliminating or reducing the amount of time spent around major stressors such as a certain job, relationship or lifestyle choice e.g. over consuming alcohol. Practices such as meditation, yoga, journaling and breathing exercises may help and physical exercise can be a great stress reliever. It’s important to find what works for you though and other ideas include reading, watching some comedy to laugh it out, doing a puzzle of some kind, spending time with loved ones (human or animal!), spending time in nature or even having a deep clean of your house – whatever makes you feel good, make time for it!
- Pay attention to your diet! Nutritional deficiencies can worsen symptoms such as fatigue and low mood and a healthy, balanced diet can help to manage them. Ensuring a steady supply of energy through high quality carbohydrates such as wholegrains can help to avoid extreme energy highs and lows. Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair and many vitamins and minerals are essential to support overall health and wellbeing. If you think your diet could be a concern, speak to a medical professional about getting support with this.
- Maintain a healthy weight. This helps to alleviate any excess stress or strains on the muscles and joints of the body and so can help to reduce pain and muscle soreness. It can make daily tasks such as cleaning, shopping and exercising much easier and therefore use less effort and energy which can help to reduce extreme tiredness.
- Join support groups or visit charities such as Fibromyalgia Action UK for emotional as well as physical support and to connect with others who may have experienced what you’re going through and may have a better understanding of the condition.
- Exercise regularly – This can help to relive pain and ease tension and stiffness. It may be necessary to moderate the frequency, intensity, duration and type of exercise you do for best results. Swimming or exercising in a heated pool or warm water can be an ideal place to start. Pool based exercise helps to support the body and therefore take the pressure off of muscles and joints, as well as helping with mobility due to the buoyancy effect of the water. Warmer temperatures can also help to ease stiffness and reduce pain. Seated exercises may eb another good option for beginners as they again take pressure away from muscles and joints of the lower body.
Gentle aerobic exercises may improve quality of life and relieve pain and over time they can increase your endurance and so these may also help you cope better with the tasks and activities of daily life.
People with fibromyalgia who completed gentle strengthening exercises have been found in studies to feel less tired, more able to function in everyday activities and have experienced a boost in mood. Exercise can have both mental and physical benefits and can therefore support the wide ranging symptoms of conditions such as fibromyalgia. Strength work should begin with body weight or low weight exercises to help to reduce any additional muscle soreness. For guidance and support with this, speak to a fitness professional to ensure a fully personalised programme.
Additional rest days should be considered with conditions such as fibromyalgia and these could involve gentle yoga/stretching, foam rolling or massage to support muscle recovery and relaxation. High impact and high intensity exercises should be avoided, especially at the beginning of an exercise programme as these can place large amounts of stress on the body, muscles and joints. Any exercise plan should begin very gently and gradually and progressively increase in demand over time whether this is increasing the frequency, intensity, duration or changing the type of exercise. It’s important to listen to your own body and monitor closely the effects of your exercise programme as well as other lifestyle choices in order to ensure the best support for yourself and to minimise any undesirable effects.
Last but not least, pacing yourself is more important then ever with conditions such as fibromyalgia. As the condition is known to have ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’, it’s important not to push yourself too hard when you’re feeling relatively well as this can set you back with symptoms and take longer to recover therefore reducing activity levels again. Aim for ‘little and often’ if possible to avoid constant highs and lows of energy, pain and so on. Imagine yourself like a mobile phone battery – if you start the day at 90% but get it doing calls, watching videos, texting and multitasking the battery will likely run down very quickly and therefore take longer to recharge. If you stick to simple tasks and not doing too much all at once, the battery life will last longer and therefore be more able to recharge fully more quickly. You wouldn’t let your phone battery run down to 0 so don’t let it happen to yourself! This is a great analogy not just for long term health conditions but for physical and mental health in general!
As always, if you have any questions about what’s discussed in this blog please contact Mike at Hamers360ftitness or Bev on Instagram @bevs_life.
Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer/ Exercise Referral Officer and Complementary Therapist.