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What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia syndrome is a common and chronic disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain, fatigue, and multiple tender points. The word fibromyalgia comes from the Latin term for fibrous tissue ( fibro) and the Greek ones for muscle ( myo) and pain ( algia).

Tender points are specific places on the body—on the neck, shoulders, back, hips, and upper and lower extremities—where people with fibromyalgia feel pain in response to slight pressure.

Although fibromyalgia is often considered an arthritis-related condition, it is not truly a form of arthritis (a disease of the joints) because it does not cause inflammation or damage to the joints, muscles, or other tissues. Like arthritis, however, fibromyalgia can cause significant pain and fatigue, and it can interfere with a person's ability to carry on daily activities. Also like arthritis, fibromyalgia is considered a rheumatic condition.

You may wonder what exactly rheumatic means. Even physicians do not always agree on whether a disease is considered rheumatic. If you look up the word in the dictionary, you'll find it comes from the Greek word rheum, which means flux—not an explanation that gives you a better understanding. In medicine, however, the term rheumatic means a medical condition that impairs the joints and/or soft tissues and causes chronic pain.

In addition to pain and fatigue, people who have fibromyalgia may experience:

  • sleep disturbances
  • morning stiffness
  • headaches
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • painful menstrual periods
  • numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • restless legs syndrome
  • temperature sensitivity
  • cognitive and memory problems (sometimes referred to as "fibro fog")

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome rather than a disease. Unlike a disease, which is a medical condition with a specific cause or causes and recognizable signs and symptoms, a syndrome is a collection of signs, symptoms, and medical problems that tend to occur together but are not related to a specific, identifiable cause.

Who Gets Fibromyalgia?

According to a paper published by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), fibromyalgia affects 3 to 6 million - or as many as one in 50 - Americans. For unknown reasons, between 80 and 90 percent of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women; however, men and children also can be affected. Most people are diagnosed during middle age, although the symptoms often become present earlier in life.

People with certain rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (commonly called lupus), or ankylosing spondylitis (spinal arthritis) may be more likely to have fibromyalgia, too.

Several studies indicate that women who have a family member with fibromyalgia are more likely to have fibromyalgia themselves, but the exact reason for this—whether it be hereditary or caused by environmental factors or both—is unknown. One study supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) is trying to identify if certain genes predispose some people to fibromyalgia.

 

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