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Fibromyalgia – Understanding a Misunderstood Syndrome

The symptoms associated with Fibromyalgia have been documented for centuries, but the underlying mechanisms of the syndrome have been widely misunderstood. Fibromyalgia is characterized by chronic widespread pain, multiple tender points, abnormal pain processing, sleep disturbances, fatigue and often psychological distress. For those with severe symptoms, fibromyalgia can be extremely debilitating and interfere with basic daily activities.

Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions affecting an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 3-6% of people worldwide.  Approximately 75-90 percent of those with fibromyalgia are women but it also occurs in men and children of all ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, for several hundred years fibromyalgia was considered by most doctors to be a psychological disorder. Its victims, mostly women, were accused of being hypochondriacs, malingering or trying to get attention. Even today, the top misconception is that fibromyalgia isn't a real medical problem—it’s "all in your head."

By the 20th century, doctors began to fully describe fibromyalgia symptoms and study its causes. Early researchers thought it must be a disease of the muscles and fibrous tissue since muscle pain seemed to the main symptom. When tests did not reveal any muscle or tissue damage, researchers then theorized that it might be an autoimmune disorder. Again, research failed to support that theory. [more]

Meanwhile, those suffering from the syndrome continued to be told that it was “all in their head.”  That didn’t begin to change until 1987 when the American Medical Association recognized fibromyalgia as a physical condition. Then, three years later, The American College of Rheumatology developed diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia.

By the late 1990s, the medical community turned its focus to the current school of thought – that fibromyalgia is a central nervous system disorder that disrupts how the body processes pain signals. And while our understanding of Fibromyalgia today is far from clear, we do know that it is a real physiological and neurochemical problem. The latest research and treatment options do provide some measure of hope and relief:


  • Recent research has found that the disorder is often seen in families, among siblings or mothers and their children suggesting a genetic component
  • Fibromyalgia often occurs following a physical trauma, such as an acute illness or injury, which may act as a “trigger” in the development of the disorder.
  • Recent studies have suggested that fibromyalgia patients have disordered pain processing and an amplified response to stimuli that would not ordinarily be painful in healthy individuals.


  • Since there is no known cure for fibromyalgia, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving function.
  • A variety of prescription medications can help reduce pain levels and improve sleep. In 2007 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Lyrica (pregabalin) as the first drug to treat fibromyalgia. Cymbalta (duloxetine HCl) was approved in June 2008; and Savella (milnacipran HCl) was approved in January 2009.
  • Alternative therapies, such as massage, myofascial release, acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal supplements and yoga, can be effective tools in managing symptoms.
  • Increasing rest, pacing activities, reducing stress, practicing relaxation and improving nutrition can help minimize symptoms and improve quality of life.


National Fibromyalgia Association


National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

Mayo Clinic

Health Central


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