Woman curled over in fibromyalgia pain.Fibromyalgia is a health condition characterized by chronic muscle pain at tender points, incapacitating fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and psychological distress.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

People experiencing fibromyalgia symptoms often demonstrate an increased sensitivity to pain. As such, physical contact not usually perceived as painful—for example, touching the edge of a sheet of paper—might feel very painful for a person experiencing fibromyalgia. This heightened perception of pain contributes significantly to the intense physical distress, psychological distress, lack of energy, and sleep disturbances generally experienced by individuals with the condition.

Other common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Tension and migraine headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating and problems with memory
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and temperature
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • Morning stiffness
  • Urinary problems
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Painful menstrual periods

While the etiology of fibromyalgia is unknown, there are biological and social factors which have been linked with the condition. These factors include genetic predisposition, traumatic experiences, repetitive injuries, obesity, certain ailments such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and exposure to viral infections.

Individuals aged 18 years or older who have fibromyalgia make up 2-4% of the American population—or approximately 5 million adults. While men and children can be affected, 80-90% of all affected individuals are women.

The Debate Over Fibromyalgia: Physical or Mental?

Currently, there are differences in opinion within the medical community as to whether fibromyalgia is a physical or mental condition. The debate stems mainly from the fact that there are no quantifiable tests which can be performed to definitively diagnose the syndrome. At present, fibromyalgia is considered to be a spectrum health condition rather than a categorical illness.

With no biopsies or medical imaging scans to guide them, doctors must rely primarily on self-reports of affected people and compare these to a sliding scale. If the doctor is able to rule out the presence of other diseases which could possibly cause the symptoms, and the pain has been present in all four quadrants of the affected person’s body for a minimum of three months, then a diagnosis of fibromyalgia may be reached. However, with no observable and scientifically reliable tests available, a number of health professionals are reluctant to make such a medical diagnosis. Whether the condition is physical or mental though, doctors agree that the pain experienced by persons with fibromyalgia is real.

Fibromyalgia Treatments

Pain medication, sleep aids, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and muscle relaxants have all been used to mitigate various fibromyalgia symptoms. Many people with symptoms of fibromyalgia have found relief by making lifestyle changes such as exercising more often, eating healthier, and adjusting their work schedule. Breathing exercises, yoga, and other relaxation techniques have also proven to be beneficial. One specific treatment that has had significant success in helping to attenuate fibromyalgia symptoms is psychotherapy.

Therapy for Fibromyalgia

Therapy can be a crucial component of the fibromyalgia treatment process. People experiencing fibromyalgia often report episodes of anxiety, frustration, or low self-worth, and they are three times more likely to develop major depression than peers without the condition. Negative feelings can contribute to the pain cycle and make fibromyalgia symptoms even worse.

By seeking the assistance of a qualified therapist, people with fibromyalgia are better equipped to handle the physical and mental challenges associated with the condition. In addition to helping people find relief for fibromyalgia symptoms, therapy also provides needed emotional and psychological support.

Counseling can help individuals experiencing fibromyalgia to approach and manage their situation with a positive outlook. Psychotherapy can help affected individuals to understand and better address their feelings about the issue. For example, studies show that individuals who receive cognitive behavioral therapy and operant behavioral therapy report a significant reduction in fibromyalgia pain after treatment.


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Last Updated: 08-7-2015

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