Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes pain throughout your body. It also leads to fatigue, sleep issues, and other symptoms. People with this condition are more sensitive to pain than those without the condition.
Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions in the world. It affects about 10 million people in the United States, according to the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA).
The cause of fibromyalgia is still a bit of a mystery. But there is research that points to several factors that may be involved. The research also includes risk factors that may increase a person’s chance of developing the condition.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia
There are several symptoms of fibromyalgia. These include:
- dull, aching pain on both sides of your body and above and below your waist
- trouble remembering and concentrating, sometimes called “fibro fog”
- trouble sleeping
- jaw pain or clicking
- depression and anxiety
- diarrhea and abdominal pain
- painful menstrual periods
- numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- sensitivity to noise, light, or temperatures (hot or cold)
Experts don’t know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but a few factors might be involved:
Abnormal pain signaling
In people with fibromyalgia, the nervous system may not process pain signals in the usual way. Abnormal levels of chemicals in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that carry these signals may make people more sensitive to the feeling of pain.
Hormones such as serotonin, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine help your body to process pain. Lower-than-normal levels of these hormones in the brain and nervous system may interrupt pain signals and intensify your sensitivity to them.
Fibromyalgia can run in families. It’s likely that there’s an unidentified genetic abnormality that increases certain people’s risk for the condition. Certain genes may control the way the body regulates pain responses. Scientists speculate that people with fibromyalgia carry one or more genes that cause them to react strongly to stimuli that another person may not perceive as painful.
For many people, symptoms begin after emotional or physical trauma, or a bout with an infectious disease. These factors do not likely cause fibromyalgia by themselves. However, they may trigger the onset in people who are already at risk for it by altering the nervous system’s response to pain.
The following may also be fibromyalgia triggers:
- infections such as the flu
- repeated injuries
- a traumatic life event such as a breakup, divorce, or the death of a loved one
Problems getting enough sleep or spending enough time in the deepest stages of sleep are common in this disorder. But doctors aren’t sure if this is a symptom or a cause of fibromyalgia. Abnormal sleep patterns can affect the levels of some brain chemicals.
Risk factors for fibromyalgia
Several factors increase the risk of fibromyalgia. But having one of these following risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll be diagnosed with the condition.
Fibromyalgia is more common in women than in men. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), women are eight to nine times more likely than men to have fibromyalgia.
Scientists believe women experience pain differently than men. This is partly because female reproductive hormones, such as estrogen, make women more sensitive to pain. It’s why pain levels fluctuate during a woman’s menstrual cycles when estrogen levels rise and fall. Menopause, which also results in lowered levels of estrogen, is another potential risk factor for fibromyalgia.
According to the NFA, most people with fibromyalgia are diagnosed in early to middle adulthood, between the ages of 20 and 50.
If you have a close family member with fibromyalgia, you’re more likely to be diagnosed yourself.
It’s not known if sleep problems are a symptom or a cause of fibromyalgia. Some people who have disorders affecting sleep, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome (RLS), are more likely to have the condition.
Other rheumatic diseases
Rheumatic diseases affect the joints, muscles, and bones. People who have another rheumatic disease are more likely to have fibromyalgia. These diseases include:
Mood disorders and fibromyalgia are closely related. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety stem from the same chemical imbalances linked to fibromyalgia. The strain of living with chronic pain can also cause depression. Also, depression can make your pain worse.
Other possible risk factors for fibromyalgia include not exercising, exercising too much, and undergoing surgery.
Your outlook depends on the severity of your fibromyalgia. The condition usually continues long-term, but it’s milder in some people than in others.
Fibromyalgia isn’t life-threatening, but it can be life-altering. Learning how to cope with your condition will give you the best possible outcome. Talk with your doctor about finding the best treatment and support options.