11 September 2014
Article by Sana Ahmad, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
Fibromyalgia, also known as fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS or FS) is a complex chronic pain condition characterised by widespread pain all over the body: muscular and joint tenderness, poor sleep quality and high levels of fatigue. It affects muscles and soft tissues such as tendons and ligaments and is a common cause of chronic musculoskeletal pain. Other features of fibromyalgia include cognitive disturbance (memory and concentration), increased anxiety, headaches and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Fibromyalgia can affect anyone of any age, ethnic group or social background, although it has been found to be more prevalent in women aged 45-60 in comparison to men. The condition is estimated to affect around two million people in the UK alone although researchers believe only 20% have been formally diagnosed due to the complex nature of its’ symptoms – there is no simple test that is able to determine the illness. Despite being one of the most common causes of musculoskeletal pain, the condition is little understood as the exact cause of fibromyalgia remains unknown due to the abnormalities in muscle tissue being inconsistent between patients. Changes in pain processing mechanisms in the central nervous system (CNS) are thought to become dysfunctional resulting in the amplification of pain and sensitivity, whereby simple movements or even a normal, soft touch which is usually non-painful, becomes extremely painful a sufferer. Due to little understanding into the underlying cause of the pain, sufferers find their illness hard to explain and feel it is sometimes overlooked or dismissed as some health professionals still regard it to be more psychological. However evidence to support the underlying pathology for fibromyalgia is mounting.
Research has indicated that the development of fibromyalgia is often brought on following a traumatic event, serious infection or accident which may have resulted in physical injury. Recent research has indicated there may also be a genetic predisposition in the development of the condition. For some people there is a sudden appearance of symptoms, however for many it can occur as a gradual process involving constant visits to their GP. A common characteristic of fibromyalgia is that it can seem that as soon as one symptom is resolved another has developed. Unfortunately people living with fibromyalgia experience problems that go beyond the direct pain caused by their illness. Sufferers can often be faced with scepticism from family and friends due to general lack of public awareness, as the illness tends to be invisible with nothing seemingly ‘wrong’ with the patient at a physical level despite them being burdened with inexplicable pain. Many people who suffer from the illness are forced to give up their jobs, hobbies, cancel social plans and make changes to their lifestyle.
The need for more effective treatment of fibromyalgia is the focus of this year’s National Fibromyalgia Awareness Week, which runs until this Sunday. Coping techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to aid stress reduction has evidence of effectiveness in some cases as well as certain forms of physical exercise. Some patients have also found alternative therapies useful, however there is little scientific evidence to support these. Research into the causes and treatments is ongoing, however both health professionals and researchers seem to agree that better understanding and awareness is key in continuing to help those who are suffering from fibromyalgia.