Ask the Expert: What is fibromyalgia?

07 May 2019

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes pain all over the body. Although a very common condition, the exact cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown. Our Physiotherapy Manager, Alison Hodges, discussed what fibromyalgia is, and how to manage it.

What is Fibromyalgia?

When I first learnt about fibromyalgia I was told there were two main symptoms:

1. You have pain everywhere
2. You can’t sleep

I was interested to find out more about this condition, and this is what I’ve learnt:

Fibromyalgia is exactly what it says it is -
fibro = fibrous tissues such as ligaments and tendons
myo = muscles
algia = pain

But it can also involve fatigue, and can range from having a lack of get up and go, to pain everywhere, poor sleep patterns and psychological problems.

Is there a blood test/x-ray to show I have it?

No, however your consultant may refer you for these to eliminate the possibility of another condition causing your symptoms.

What causes fibromyalgia?

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but it’s thought to be due to a problem with the way the brain processes pain signals, which leads to a patient feeling pain even if there is no damage to their muscles or ligaments. It may also be due to low levels of hormones that help slow down pain signals.

Who is most likely to get it?

Women aged between 30-50 years old are the most likely to present with it, but it can affect anyone, including men. Although it’s unclear how many people suffer from fibromyalgia, it’s estimated that almost 1 in 20 people are affected to some degree.

Does medication help?

There is no current cure for fibromyalgia, but there are different medications available to help control symptoms, however for some patients it unfortunately isn’t effective.

Does exercise help?

Exercise is important for patients suffering from fibromyalgia, but they have to be very careful how they exercise as it can flare up their symptoms. When our pain system is working properly, exercise helps stimulate the body’s own natural pain killers, whereas those with fibromyalgia will find that exercising can make their pain and fatigue worse. Any new exercise should be started slowly and tolerance built up gradually, ie if you are comfortable exercising for 10 minutes then gradually build it up to add on another minute, sticking to tiny incremental increases.

What exercises are best?

It seems that fluid movement is better than fast and jerky movements so tai chi, yoga, swimming and walking can be a good place to start, and it’s important to find something that you enjoy.

What are the main tips on how to manage fibromyalgia?

If you’re suffering from fibromyalgia symptoms you should firstly make an appointment to see your GP, who will be able to offer advice. You will also need to learn to pace yourself, and ensure you don’t stop exercising, as a little careful exercise is better than none. There are also many alternative therapies that can help get you through a flare up, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, massages, reflexology, acupuncture and mindfulness.

Is there a support group I can go to if I have fibromyalgia?

You may find it helpful to speak to other people suffering from fibromyalgia. Click here for the support group section of the UK Fibromyalgia website.

Alison Hodges, and her team, are available to book at Spire London East hospital for a wide range of physiotherapy services. Call us on 020 8709 7835 to book. 

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