As many as 18 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, a little-understood disorder that causes chronic, widespread pain and hypersensitivity to pressure. Its effects also go far beyond pain. Other fibromyalgia symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Bowel and bladder problems

The name fibromyalgia comes from the Latin and Greek root words fibro- (fibrous tissues), myo- (muscle) and algos- (pain) – meaning muscle and connective tissue pain. The name is, in fact, a misnomer. Originally it described what were thought to be fibrous deposits in the muscles that caused pain. While it is true that some patients have muscle spasms so severe that they become fibrous, this has nothing to do with the cause of fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a real disorder

In the past, fibromyalgia patients often were called hypochondriacs. Many times they were referred to psychiatrists, and it was not uncommon for sufferers to be institutionalized.

Only recently has fibromyalgia disorder gained recognition as a condition that deserves attention. In general, patients are receiving more respect today and are believed when they say they have a problem. But they may still be looked upon as drug addicts or presumed to have a self-serving motive, when all they really need is someone to believe them and get them help.

Researchers estimate that fibromyalgia affects up to 6 percent of the population, with 9-of-10 sufferers being women.

Medical practitioners don’t know the cause of fibromyalgia, and while there has been an increasing amount of research in past 30 years, there is little agreement on what fibromyalgia is and what to do about it. Aside from pressure tests – which themselves are disputed, there are no generally accepted, objective tests for fibromyalgia. In the end, most patients are diagnosed based on differentials – that is, a doctor reviews the history of symptoms and rules out better-known possibilities before determining that “fibromyalgia” is the best description.

Since the cause is unknown, there is no generally accepted treatment for fibromyalgia itself. Instead, doctors focus on relieving the symptoms, through a variety of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes.

Many doctors, in fact, question the existence of fibromyalgia as a distinct clinical entity. The failure of the medical profession to agree on the cause, treatment or even existence of fibromyalgia has made it difficult for those suffering from the painful and debilitating symptoms to find answers.

How many people have fibromyalgia?

Approximately one in 50 Americans are estimated to have fibromyalgia, or between 3 million and 6 million people in the United States. (American College of Rheumatology, 2004)

Fibromyalgia is the second-most-common ailment affecting the musculoskeletal system, after osteoarthritis. (American College of Rheumatology, 2004)

Who gets fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia primarily affects women of childbearing age, but children and men also may be affected (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, 1999)

An estimated 80-90 percent of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women. And women who have a family member who has fibromyalgia are more likely to develop fibromyalgia themselves (American College of Rheumatology, 2004)

Fibromyalgia may often co-occur (up to 25-65 percent) with other rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and ankylosing spondylitis. (CDC, 2009)

What are Common Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?

Here are some of the most commonly reported symptoms among people who suffer from fibromyalgia:

  • An estimated 90 percent of fibromyalgia patients have jaw or facial tenderness that can produce symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder), an acute or chronic inflammation of the joint that connects the jaw (mandible) to the skull. (Fibromyalgia Network, 1999)
  • A reported 50 percent of fibromyalgia patients suffer from sensitivity to odors, noise, bright lights, medications and various foods. (Fibromyalgia Network, 1999)
  • Adults who suffer from fibromyalgia are 3.4 times more likely to suffer from major depression than adults who do not have fibromyalgia. (CDC, 2009)
  • More than 50 percent of people who have fibromyalgia suffer from constant headaches or migraines. (Fibromyalgia, 2008)
  • An Internet-based epidemiology survey (BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 2007, 9;8:7), conducted with more than 2,500 fibromyalgia sufferers, revealed that the most common factors that patients perceived as worsening their fibromyalgia symptoms were:
    • Emotional distress (83%)
    • Weather changes (80%)
    • Sleeping problems (79%)
    • Strenuous activity (70%)
    • Mental stress (68%)
    • Worrying (60%)
    • Automotive travel (57%)
    • Family conflicts (52%)
    • Physical injuries (50%)
    • Physical inactivity (50%)

Lifestyle impacts of fibromyalgia

Following are some of the ways fibromyalgia sufferers have reported that the disorder negatively impacts their lifestyles:

  • Approximately 50% of people who have fibromyalgia experience difficulty with or are unable to perform routine daily activities. (Health Central, 2009)
  • A reported 30-40 percent of fibromyalgia patients have to stop working or change jobs because the symptoms they experience inhibit their ability to perform required duties. (Health Central, 2009)
  • People who have fibromyalgia are hospitalized about once every three years. (CDC, 2009)