An unknown cause. A difficult diagnosis. No known cure. No wonder people with fibromyalgia syndrome, or FMS, can feel perplexed, under attack and isolated. FMS brings fatigue that drags you down and persistent pain that may render you nearly helpless. Researchers have been working to understand what fibromyalgia is and are making progress in developing treatments for the debilitating syndrome.
FMS is a chronic pain condition that can occur by itself or along with certain conditions such as arthritis. In addition to muscle pain and fatigue, it can also bring headaches, memory problems, sleeplessness, irritable bowels, morning stiffness and numbness or tingling in the arms and legs. The syndrome affects as many as 1 in 50 Americans, most of them women.
What causes FMS? Many people associate their FMS with a physically or emotionally stressful event, like an accident. Some connect it to repetitive injuries, or to an illness; people with autoimmune diseases are particularly likely to develop the syndrome. Some scientists suspect problems with how the brain and spinal cord process pain. Genes may also be involved.
People with FMS typically see a number of doctors before getting the diagnosis. There are no standard tests for the syndrome. Because many other conditions can cause pain and fatigue, a doctor must first rule out other potential causes. The diagnosis of FMS is based on two criteria: a history of widespread pain lasting more than 3 months and the presence of specific pain “tender points” on the body.
FMS can last a long time. However, several medications may help to treat it. Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers may help. Antidepressants can elevate levels of certain brain chemicals to help with pain and fatigue. A class of medications called benzodiazepines can help relax muscles and improve sleep. Doctors may prescribe other drugs for specific FMS symptoms.
In a recent study supported by NIH, scientists found that the medication gabapentin, which is used for certain types of seizures, can be an effective treatment for the pain and other symptoms associated with FMS. Lyrica (pregabalin), which is structurally similar to gabapentin, was more recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the first drug to treat FMS. Lyrica reduces pain and improves daily functions for some patients with fibromyalgia.
Physical and occupational therapy may also help some people with FMS. Learning pain-management and coping techniques can help as well. Some FMS patients have success with complementary and alternative therapies, including massage, movement therapies, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, and herbs and dietary supplements.
Researchers supported by NIH are continuing to make inroads into understanding FMS. The insights they are gaining will help them to develop potential medications and other interventions that may one day change the outlook for people with FMS.