Fibromyalgia is a widespread chronic pain syndrome. It occurs most commonly in women 20 to 50 years old. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases estimates that five million people in the U.S. suffer from the condition. Even though it’s so widespread, the cause of fibromyalgia is still unclear, and fibromyalgia symptoms can be just as varied and complex.
Fibromyalgia is diagnosed as a syndrome–a collection of signs, symptoms, and medical problems–not just by one marker. The three symptoms that typically lead directly to a diagnosis are:
- Widespread pain on both sides of the body, and above and below the waist
- Cognitive difficulties
However, fibromyalgia is a complex chronic pain syndrome that affects every aspect of your life. This post will go over all of these symptoms, as well as specific fibromyalgia symptoms in women. A full fibromyalgia symptoms list varies. It could include any of the following 27 fibromyalgia symptoms:
- Widespread muscle soreness
- Muscle spasms
- Headaches or migraines
- Rebound pain
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Excessive gas
- Painful bladder syndrome
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Pins and needles sensations
- Increased overall sensitivity to cold and touch
- Inability to concentrate, or “fibro fog”
- Problems with balance and coordination
- Nervous energy
- Emotional sensitivity
- Increased stress response
- Sleep disorders
- Joint stiffness
- Menstrual pain or changes
- Increased chance of other health conditions
Knowing these symptoms and if they affect you can help when it comes to diagnosis. It takes years for the average person to be diagnosed. This is because the symptoms of fibromyalgia overlap with many other disorders. The following video gives a bit more information about this pain syndrome. After, read on to learn if you’re suffering from this condition.
Pain is one of the most common symptoms of fibromyalgia, and it’s a required component of any diagnosis. But, as EverydayHealth explains:
“Symptoms may fluctuate in intensity, and may improve or worsen over time. Factors such as stress, changes in weather, too much or too little exercise, and too much or too little rest can affect the severity of your symptoms.”
That means that an activity that caused you pain one day might be fine the next, and vice versa. Even so, here’s how fibromyalgia pain symptoms can affect your life.
The symptom that fibromyalgia is known for is most certainly chronic pain throughout the body. Specifically, the pain has to occur on both sides of your body as well as above and below the waist to be diagnosed as fibromyalgia. The pain can travel to every other part of your body. The intensity of the pain may vary. Fibromyalgia also has the tendency to wax and wane. That means that pain can vary on any given day and even during the same day.
The National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association reports that the following could all affect pain levels:
- Cold/humid weather
- Non-restorative sleep
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Excessive physical activity
- Physical inactivity
Most patients describe their pain as a stiffness or aching starting in specific areas. Fibromyalgia tends to begin in the neck and shoulders area. From there, it spreads out to the rest of the body. It is also common for your pain to feel like it is coming from your joints even though inflammation or swelling is not present. Tender points are also common. These generally produce a sharp pain when touched or pushed.
In order to be diagnosed as a chronic condition, this type pain must be present for at least three months and be unresolved or recurring.
Muscle spasms are a painful fibro symptom. They can be caused by an irritation as the muscle clenches and unclenches on its own. This can interfere with sleep and daily activity.
Headaches are a common symptom of fibromyalgia. Some patients even experience extreme migraine pain. The intense pressure or throbbing from these migraines can extend further down the body into the neck, shoulders, and upper back. These headaches are often triggered by environmental factors such as:
- Bright lights
- Loud sounds
- Powerful smells
These headaches can last for days and may be severe enough to disturb sleep.
When fibromyalgia patients are pain-free, their first instinct may be to jump up and get things done. They may clean their house, meet friends for lunch, then go for a hike in the afternoon with their kids. While these are all wonderful things, the increased activity can mean worse pain later that night or the next day.
Doctors diagnose fibromyalgia by 18 tender points on the body. These are symmetrical points located both above and below the waist. Some fibromyalgia sufferers may experience increased tenderness in these areas when a flare-up is imminent. Others may feel these tender points nearly all of the time.
Many fibromyalgia patients also suffer from gastrointestinal issues.
Fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome are closely linked, as pain and stiffness are frequent problems in both conditions. It is quite common for someone to have both of these disorders at the same time. IBS is another chronic pain condition that can lead to:
- Severe abdominal pain
Pain can be so severe as to make a fibromyalgia patient sick to their stomach. This may even cause a change in diet.
Some of those with IBS experience constipation as their primary manifestation of this syndrome.
Excessive gas can either be a symptom of IBS, or it may occur as a result of dietary changes due to nausea or other causes.
For those fibromyalgia patients who also experience IBS, if they do not suffer from constipation or excessive gas, they may find that their primary symptom of fibromyalgia is diarrhea.
Mayo Clinic reports that fibro often coexists with other conditions. These include interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome.
One of the strangest effects of fibromyalgia is its distortions of a patient’s sensitivity to pain, cold, touch, or even sensory inputs like smell.
Those people with chronic pain conditions experience changes in their brain that make their body more sensitive to pain over time. This is a common fibromyalgia symptom.
Any involvement of the nerves may cause a tingling sensation in hands and feet, often referred to as feeling like “pins and needles.” SpineHealth notes that:
“Approximately 25% of fibromyalgia patients report ‘poor circulation’ or numbness and tingling which is not in a radicular pattern and typically involves arms and hands. However, a physical examination reveals normal muscle strength and sensory testing, with no inflammatory or arthritic features.”
In addition to increases in sensitivity to pain (which merits its own focus), many fibromyalgia patients also reportincreased sensitivity to:
- Loud noises
- Bright lights
- Certain foods
Fibromyalgia patients are so sensitive sometimes that even the slightest touch can cause them to flinch in surprise or pain. Nerve endings are hyper-aware and sensitive to even the slightest stimulation from seams and tags in clothing. But, because of an increased sensitivity to cold, fibromyalgia patients may find themselves reaching for a sweater on the sunniest days.
Fibromyalgia diagnosis tends to focus more on your physical symptoms, like pain and fatigue. This makes sense. These symptoms are the easiest indicators to identify and measure. However, there are a number of mental and cognitive symptoms that occur from this disorder that can also have a large impact on your quality of life.
Fibromyalgia patients may find themselves forgetting everyday things. This may include where they put their keys to what they were supposed to get at the store. Memory loss and decreased verbal fluency are particularly severe fibromyalgia symptoms. While memory loss is common as a person ages, a study on cognitive function in fibromyalgia patients showed that those with fibromyalgia had the cognitive ability and recall of someone 20 years their senior.
16. Inability to concentrate, or “fibro fog”
The most common mental fibromyalgia symptom is what is known as fibro fog or brain fog. This includes many different cognitive difficulties, such as:
- Becoming easily confused
- Lacking motivation
- Feeling “hazy” or “blurry”
- Difficulty focusing for extended periods of time
- Being unable to focus or pay attention
This fibro fog is usually caused by overstimulation, high stress, lack of sleep, and some medications. This fog can feel like you are taking cold medicine. For many patients, it’s one of the most frustrating symptoms on a day-to-day basis.
Many with fibromyalgia also report having trouble balancing upright, or maintaining basic coordination. This could be due to fatigue certainly, but is also a separate symptom of this syndrome.
Between the lack of sleep and the amount of effort even the smallest task takes during a flare-up, many patients suffer from fatigue. And, the constant pain itself can be exhausting. Those who suffer from fibro tend to report that they have trouble obtaining restful sleep and feel tired when they wake up. Exhaustion is so synonymous with fibro that some experts believe that without sleep disruption and chronic fatigue, it cannot be considered a true case of fibromyalgia.
Fibro sufferers have a way to describe this. They call themselves “spoonies.” This compares the amount of energy they have each day in terms of the number of “spoons” they have. If a fibromyalgia patient has ten spoons for a day and they use eight getting ready for work, they know they have to make adjustments to rest of their day.
If you have fibromyalgia, you’re also more likely to experience mood disorders.
As with all chronic pain patients, fibromyalgia sufferers have an increased chance of developing depression as a direct result of their condition. Research has shown that those diagnosed with fibro are three times as likely to have depression compared to those without it. Depression is one of the most important symptoms to determine early because it can be difficult to self-identify. It can also lead to other negative effects that can exacerbate other symptoms, such as:
- Loss of interest in activities
- Decreased energy
- Persistent sadness or anxiety
In more advanced cases, it can lead to a sense of worthlessness and thoughts about death. This can be exacerbated by their inability to regularly attend therapy. In addition, when depression is comorbid with a chronic pain condition, the condition will generally not improve unless the depression is also treated.
When fibromyalgia patients feel good, they may be almost frenetic in their desire to do things. Whether playing with their kids or simply getting household chores done without pain, this can result in rebound pain later on.
Waiting for the next painful flare-up can result in a constant low-level hum of anxiety. In some patients, this anxiety may begin to grow into a fear of leaving the house, just in case a flare-up should begin. This can also manifest as a panic attack if fibro symptoms flare-up suddenly far away from home.
As anyone might expect, having any chronic pain condition may cause the person suffering to feel irritable and short-tempered. However, for fibro patients it’s more than that.
Many patients have reported that their emotional reactions are much stronger. They also have less control over how they express them. Irritability is one of the most common manifestations of this and this sensitivity can greatly increase with a lack of sleep. This sensitivity is true for negative and positive emotions alike.
Mood swings can also have a big impact on the everyday life of fibromyalgia sufferers. Many people diagnosed with fibromyalgia can go from happy to angry in a minute or less. Very often the sudden changes in mood are inexplicable. This can have a devastating effect on a person’s professional and personal life.
The stress of painful fibromyalgia flare-ups can cause sufferers to experience post-traumatic stress disorder type symptoms, such as an inability to relax and hypervigilance. This high level of constant stress can lead to other health issues.
Finally, there are other symptoms that are related to, but don’t directly fit into, any of the other categories.
Chronic pain patients often experience sleep disorders, and fibromyalgia patients are no different. Pain may make it difficult to get comfortable enough to fall asleep, and the slightest movement may result in pain that jolts them awake.
OnHealth reports that:
“Normally, there are several levels of sleep and getting enough of the deeper levels of sleep may be even more important than the total hours of sleep. Patients with fibromyalgia lack the deep, restorative level of sleep, called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Consequently, patients with fibromyalgia often awaken in the morning without feeling fully rested, even though they seem to have had an adequate number of hours of sleep time.”
Especially in the morning, joint stiffness can be a common symptom of fibromyalgia. But it’s a double-edged sword: the more a patient moves the less stiff they will be, but pain often makes movement very difficult.
Women may experience more pain during their menstrual cycle, including cramping and low back pain. They may also experience irregular menstrual cycles or changes in their cycle in duration and heaviness. Healthline reports that:
“In a report by the National Fibromyalgia Association, women with the condition have more painful periods than usual. Sometimes the pain fluctuates with their menstrual cycle. Most women with fibromyalgia are also between the ages of 40 to 55 years old. Research suggests that fibromyalgia symptoms may feel worse in women who are post-menopausal or are experiencing menopause.”
While not a direct symptom of fibromyalgia, this condition can greatly affect a person’s ability to participate in their normal routines and activities. If these include a regular exercise routine that is no longer regular or as vigorous, a fibromyalgia sufferer may find themselves with a higher body-mass index. This can lead to other health issues, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
MedicineNet also reports that: “Fibromyalgia can occur by itself, but people with certain other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other types of arthritis, may be more likely to have it.”
Restless leg syndrome and vision problems are also related to fibromyalgia.
While an accurate number is hard to gauge, an estimated 75 to 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. In the U.S, this means that somewhere between five and six million fibromyalgia sufferers are women. This may be due to a combination of factors that include hormonal changes and genetics. Because of this, it’s important to look at specific fibromyalgia symptoms in women.
Women in peak childbearing years (20 to 40) are diagnosed with fibromyalgia at a much higher rate than any other segment of the population in the U.S. This has led researchers to study the role hormones might play in the development of this disease. Some hypothesize that an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone may be to blame. They point to shifts in these hormones as women experience pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause.
Other causes of fibromyalgia in women can include:
- Genetics: Women with a sibling or parent with fibromyalgia are more likely to be diagnosed themselves.
- Viral infection: Viral infections such as the herpes simplex -1 virus, commonly linked to cold sores, have been connected to the development of fibromyalgia.
- Trauma: Physical or emotional trauma also correlates with a rise in the incidence of fibromyalgia.
- Dysfunctional pain processing: Many researchers agree that one of the key causes of fibromyalgia is dysfunction in the central nervous system’s (CNS) pain processing.
Women experience some symptoms at a greater rate and frequency than men who are diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Women also experience more pain than men but often receive less treatment for it.
The main fibromyalgia symptoms in women are:
- Amplified pain, for longer periods of time
- Pain during sex
- Painful menstrual cycle
- Greater feelings of fatigue and depression
- Increased rates of irritable bowel and painful bladder syndrome
- Restless leg syndrome
- Increased overall sensitivity to light, loud noises, smells, and temperature
It’s not only increased pain. Women also face discrimination to the level of pain medication they’re prescribed as well as the manner in which they are treated when they report pain. The same study also found that:
- Women are more likely than men to have their pain dismissed as psychological
- They are also less likely to be prescribed opioids for pain
- Women feel that that their pain is not taken seriously or believed when they report it
Women process pain differently than men, but discrimination in the doctor’s office when women report their pain is a big hurdle in diagnosis. This lack of understanding of women’s pain plays a big role in the amount of time it takes to even receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. The average time for a fibromyalgia diagnosis is two years or more.
Fibromyalgia in women is a debilitating syndrome. It inordinately affects our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, nieces, and aunts. Because one of the primary causes in women is hormones, it is crucial that researchers focus their efforts on treatment options that are designed for and tested on women. There is an historical research bias against women. This undoubtedly affects the efficacy of medications for them. Research needs to recognize that this syndrome is female-focused and actively recruit female study participants for more effective treatments.
With fibromyalgia in women being much more prominent, it would be easy to assume that men don’t experience it. They do, and their burden is just as difficult. While fibromyalgia symptoms in men tend to be less severe, the assumption that only women suffer from the syndrome can stall diagnosis.
One man with fibromyalgia explains:
“It’s a tough deal for a man to have fibromyalgia. One of my best friends doesn’t believe I have it. His wife, who is a doctor, told him men can’t get it, that it is in my head. That kind of hurt.”
Men are diagnosed more infrequently with fibromyalgia, but diagnosis does occur. Injury and trauma to the body may be more likely to be the cause of fibromyalgia in men, but there may be a genetic link between mothers with fibromyalgia and their sons.
For men who suffer from fibromyalgia, finding a good support group is just as necessary as it is for women. The National Fibromyalgia Association gives great tips on finding the support you need near you.
There is currently no cure for fibromyalgia, but there are treatments that can help reduce these symptoms. An earlier post on our blog discussed the common fibromyalgia treatments that are in use today for this syndrome. You can also watch our blog for any developments in fibromyalgia research or therapeutic techniques.
However, your best way to beat fibromyalgia starts with a diagnosis. By working with a pain specialist who has experience treating fibromyalgia, you can take the first step in getting your life back. Click the button below to find a pain doctor in your area.