Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and tenderness in localized areas of the neck, spine, shoulders, and hips called "tender points." People with this syndrome may also experience sleep disturbances, morning stiffness, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and other symptoms. Available data suggest that the number of persons aged 18 and older in the United States with fibromyalgia is approximately 3.7 million. It primarily occurs in women of childbearing age, but children, the elderly, and men may also be affected.
Although the cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, researchers have several theories about what triggers the disease. Some scientists believe that the syndrome may result from an injury or trauma. This injury may affect the central nervous system. Fibromyalgia may be associated with changes in muscle metabolism, such as decreased blood flow, causing fatigue and decreased strength. Others believe the syndrome may be triggered by an infectious agent such as a virus in susceptible people, but no such agent has been identified.
Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms mimic those of other diseases. The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) has developed criteria for fibromyalgia that physicians can use in diagnosing the disease. According to ACR criteria, a person is considered to have fibromyalgia if he or she has widespread pain for at least 3 months in combination with tenderness in at least 11 of 18 specific tender point sites.
Treatment of fibromyalgia requires a comprehensive approach. The physician, physical therapist, and others in the medical support system, as well as the patient, may all play an active role in the management of fibromyalgia. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise, such as swimming and walking, improves muscle fitness and reduces muscle pain and tenderness. Heat and massage may also give short-term relief. Antidepressant medications may help elevate mood, improve quality of sleep, and relax muscles. People with fibromyalgia may benefit from a combination of exercise, medication, physical therapy, and relaxation.