22 September 2017
“'Til it happens to you, you don't know how it feels, how it feels.
"'Til it happens to you, you won't know, it won't be real.
"No it won't be real, won't know how it feels.”
Copyright: Lady Gaga
Album: The Hunting Ground 2015
Lady Gaga wrote this song in 2015 about an entirely different topic but in the last few weeks, these words have taken on a different meaning, with the announcement on Twitter of her diagnosis with fibromyalgia. To a large extent, this has been a welcome spotlight on the condition for the increasing number of patients diagnosed with this often crippling disease. Awareness of this condition has now significantly risen given the celebrity status of Lady Gaga and her desire to spread understanding of the illness.
A recent study done in Scotland which looked at the prevalence of the condition, estimated that if patients scored themselves according to the criteria suggested by the American College of Rheumatology, almost 5% of the Scottish population would be positive. If that were to be extrapolated to the present UK population, almost 3 million patients in the UK are presently living and coping with the pain and symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Living with fibromyalgia is physically and emotionally distressing, especially if the physical pain is widespread and presents with further symptoms of fatigue, concentration and memory problems. As much as people say they get used to it, it is never really the case. With advancement in research and technology people living with fibromyalgia can access more treatments and therapies, both drug and non-drug related, which can improve their quality of life even if the condition cannot be cured.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic musculoskeletal pain disorder that is characterized by pain and tenderness throughout the body. Coupled with this, there are three other vitally important symptoms: sleep disturbances, memory/concentration issues, and fatigue. All of these main symptoms need to be there for at least three months and blood results should not have shown for any signs of infection, nor anything to explain the pain. There is a generalised central nervous system sensitivity which makes the body overly sensitive to touch and a minor hit will affect the whole body, causing immense pain. It has been hard to detect fibromyalgia since many of its symptoms are subjective, thus making it difficult to distinguish the cause or origin of the pain disorder. Since the causes of fibromyalgia are uncertain, it has been associated with various ‘life’ incidents such as physical or emotional stress, or traumatic events that might have triggered the development of this kind of pain.
Triggers that lead to fibromyalgia
Although fibromyalgia does not have a defined cause, there are various factors that can trigger its onset. One of the main triggers of fibromyalgia, identified in research, is related to abnormality of chemical levels in the brain that suggest a change in the central nervous system. It is also thought that fibromyalgia is related to a family’s background of illnesses, meaning they might have inherited the genes from their mother or father.
Other factors that can lead to fibromyalgia include:
- Other pain oriented diseases e.g. rheumatoid arthritis
- Car accidents
- Giving birth
- Death of a loved one
- Relationship breakup
The common parts of the body that would trigger the onset of pain throughout the body include the hips and knees, upper chest, back of the head and around the neck, at the shoulders, elbows, the feet, and the arms too.
Misconception about fibromyalgia disorder
Due to the uncertain causes of the disorder, many doctors still don’t consider it as a ‘real’ condition. This disbelief, often from a patient's first point of contact with a trusted health care professional, is hard to accept and actually can often worsen the perceived pain. Often I see patients in my clinic who mention that they are accused of exaggeration and that it is ‘all in their head’.
Needless to say, there are no characteristics of inflammation that other chronic rheumatological disorders have. However, fibromyalgia is as real and as painful as any other chronic disorder such as arthritis that affects the joints. As much as fibromyalgia may present as a result of how the brain perceives and transmits pain, it is not something that the mind just ‘imagines’. The patients suffering from this disorder have an intensified sense of pain and it is related to the physiological part of the human body. Doctors have acknowledged that it is a real disease and they want to help people cope with the pain. This has proven to be difficult since there is no cure for the disorder.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia
In addition to the immense pain that identifies with fibromyalgia, there are other symptoms that a person suffering from this chronic pain disorder will experience. Symptoms that might be experienced at any given point are:
- Sleep disturbances
- Tension on body muscles
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Morning stiffness
- Increased sensitivity to touch
- Painful menstrual periods in women
- Restless leg syndrome
- Cognitive and memory problems (fibro fog)
- Extreme numbness or tingling feeling on various body parts
- Temperature sensitivity
- Sensitivity to sound and light
Fibromyalgia is a long term chronic disease which means there is no cure to the disease at the time of writing this. However, there are alternative ways to which you can manage the pain.
To ease the burden of pain on the patients, doctors recommend multi-disciplinary approaches that will help manage the pain and alleviate the symptoms they experience. The main treatment methods of fibromyalgia include:
- Medication – there are a number of nerve pain medications and antidepressants that will help alleviate the intense pain experienced. For people experiencing sleep disturbances, sleep medication will go a long way to help you enjoy a peaceful night. Medication aimed at alleviating symptoms of fibromyalgia are also good at extending the relief to the disorder indefinitely. For some patients, there may be other treatments such as tissue-numbing drug infusions and injections.
- Therapy – depending on what triggered fibromyalgia, you can enroll for therapy that will help you manage the triggering effect of pain. For road accidents, consider physiotherapy and for emotional triggers, counselling could be beneficial.
- Lifestyle changes – if you have a pain disorder, there are certain lifestyle habits you should adopt. There are many exercises you can work out with to ease the pain and help your body adapt to the pain. Swimming is an ideal exercise especially in a warm water/spa bath (hydrotherapy).
- Relaxation treatment methods – to help ease the numbness and tenderness associated with fibromyalgia, you should try various relaxation techniques. This could include massage, to ease muscle tension, and meditation to help connect with your inner body.
The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.