I am curious about this condition called fibromyalgia. I know Lady Gaga has it and had to cancel her concert tours due to it. I know it is associated with constant pain. What exactly is it?

Fibromyalgia is a disorder that involves widespread musculoskeletal pain. It is also accompanied by fatigue, poor sleep, poor memory and poor mood. It is also called FMS (fibromyalgia syndrome).

Women are more likely than men to develop this. Not many people in Malaysia understand this condition, and not many doctors in Malaysia will be able to diagnose it either.

It usually happens between the ages of 30 and 50. People with chronic pain or muscle aches more often than not end up going to their general practitioners, who would prescribe them some pain medication like Panadol, but are unable to find the root cause and actual diagnosis.

Fibromyalgia is a condition best diagnosed by either a learned neurologist or a rheumatologist.

Why does it happen? What causes it?

No one really knows although there are several hypotheses. Scientists are postulating that it is caused by several factors working together. These may include:

Genetics: Fibromyalgia tends to run in families. If your mother had it, it is more likely that you can have it, too. However, no one quite knows which gene makes you more susceptible to it, so it will be difficult for a genetic testing to reveal this to you.

Infections: Some types of infections appear to trigger or aggravate fibromyalgia.

Physical or emotional trauma: Fibromyalgia is usually triggered by a physical or emotional event that causes you great stress. These may include an injury from a car accident, an infection, giving birth, after surgery, when you break up with your partner or spouse, or the death of a loved one.

Emotional trauma such as a break-up with a partner is one factor that can trigger fibromyalgia. Photo: 123rf.com
Is it a really uncommon disease? Why have I not heard about it until Lady Gaga?

It’s far more common than anyone thinks. It is estimated that as many as one in 20 people have it. It’s just that it is not well understood or diagnosed by many doctors. Hence the pain and tiredness are attributed to other diseases.

How do we diagnose it?

Currently, there is no test for it. So it can only be diagnosed through symptoms – which unfortunately can also be the symptoms for a lot of other diseases.

The symptoms for fibromyalgia are:

Widespread pain: This pain is usually a constant dull ache that has lasted for at least three months. The pain must have occurred on both sides of your body, and above and below your waist. (This is considered widespread).
Fatigue: You feel tired all the time. You wake up tired, even though you have slept for many hours. Your sleep is often disrupted by pain. You may also have other sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.
Difficulties doing mental work: This is called “fibro fog”. Your ability to focus, pay attention and concentrate on mental tasks is affected.
Many times, there are also other existing painful conditions associated with it, such as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, painful bladder syndrome and temporomandibular joint disorders. All these are considered “stress-related” diseases as well.

As mentioned, there may be a triggering event that causes you great stress. In other people, this develops gradually, with no triggering event.

The doctor usually diagnoses fibromyalgia by ruling out other disorders that cause pain.Why is there so much pain in this disorder?It is believed that in fibromyalgia, the pain you are feeling is amplified by the way your brain processes pain signals.

Repeated pain receptor stimulation in your nerves causes the nerves of people who are predisposed to fibromyalgia to change.

There is an increase in neurotransmitters, the chemicals in your brain that signal pain. Your brain’s receptors also develop a sort of memory to the pain and become even more sensitive. What you used to feel as a mild ache is now amplified to become an excruciating pain!

What is the treatment?

Treatment can be very difficult and varies from person to person. Painkillers are prescribed, as are antidepressants to help you sleep, and antiepileptics. Physiotherapy and counselling can help reduce pain.

You are encouraged to exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail [email protected] The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.