A few of my clients and several women I know through friends and family suffer from what can be a debilitating disease called fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is an often misdiagnosed and frequently misunderstood condition that causes chronic pain, tender joints, and extreme fatigue in its sufferers. About two percent of the population has fibromyalgia, which afflicts more women than men. It also tends to strike in older individuals, and there is some evidence that fibromyalgia may be triggered by a significant event in a person’s life, such as a car accident or severe emotional trauma. In some cases there is no specific cause, and in others, genetics may play a role.
Where does the pain come from? Some research points to a theory called “central sensitization” where the individual is overly sensitive to pain due to overactive pain sensors in the brain. Even if there is no cause for physical pain, a person with fibromyalgia feels it very acutely due to possible overstimulation of certain chemicals that signal and even remember pain throughout the body.
Luckily fibromyalgia is not degenerative, that is, it does not get worse over time or cause other debilitating chronic diseases or conditions. But that is small comfort to someone afflicted with the disease, which often causes loss of sleep, irritability, and true physical pain which can disrupt their personal and professional life, leading to depression or anxiety.
If you suspect you or a loved one may have fibromyalgia, talk with your doctor. There are certain tests now used to diagnose fibromyalgia, such as a measurement of observed “tender points”. Your doctor will place pressure on up to 18 different spots on your body, and if you experience tenderness or pain on 11 or more it may indicate the condition. If you are experiencing pain for 12 months or more for no specific reason that may also point to fibromyalgia. Your doc may also run a series of blood tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.
Once diagnosed, a physician may prescribe aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium to alleviate pain and inflammation. Sleep aides or antidepressants may also assist with the fatigue and/or emotional distress. Physical therapy is also extremely important to keep joints, muscles and nerves working properly. Many health experts are experimenting with diet to relieve symptoms in their patients. Some suggestions include: cutting out caffeine, increasing intake of foods high in essential fatty acids like salmon and walnuts, restricting intake of aspartame (NutraSweet), cutting out red meats and fried foods, eliminating foods containing MSG or nitrates, limiting “nightshade” plants like tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and avoiding dairy products.
I advise my clients with fibromyalgia to keep a daily food journal and write down the pain they are experiencing after each meal on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the worst. At follow-ups we note days where they had a particular amount of pain and review their intake to see if there were any dietary triggers. This can be extremely helpful to individuals, especially if meds and activity are not completely controlling their symptoms.