Fibromyalgia is a commonly misunderstood and misdiagnosed condition. The cause of the pain and other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia are unknown. To further complicate this complex set of symptoms is the fact that women account for 90% of fibromyalgia cases. Although no research has pinpointed the reason for this gender inequity, hormones, immunological differences, and genetics are possible culprits. What is known is that being female is a risk factor for developing fibromyalgia.
Risk Factors for Fibromyalgia:
• Family History of fibromyalgia or rheumatic conditions
• Recurrent injuries to the same body part
• Experiencing a traumatic event, such as a motor vehicle accident
• History of anxiety and/or sleep disorders
These risk factors do not dictate that you will develop fibromyalgia, but indicate the likelihood or chance that you may develop the condition. If you are concerned about any of these risk factors discuss with your healthcare provider.
Fibromyalgia Symptoms in Women
1) Pain - Widespread pain in the muscles and other soft tissues is the major symptom of fibromyalgia. This pain varies from person to person, but can often be described as burning, stabbing, shooting, throbbing, or aching. This pain, along with muscle stiffness, is often worse upon waking. This overreaching and seemingly unending pain can be extremely detrimental to the individual’s quality of life.
2) Fatigue - Often described as “fibro fog”, this symptom includes extreme lethargy and tiredness accompanied by decreased cognitive and memory function. Individuals with fibromyalgia may find themselves lacking focus and concentration. They may feel that they are in a haze of confusion. This “fog” is often attributed to extensive pain, lack of sleep, and increased stress levels. It must be noted that the lack of restorative sleep, often experienced by those with fibromyalgia, can result in complete exhaustion and decreased immune system response.
3) Painful menstruation - A recent study found that women with fibromyalgia are more likely to have painful periods and PMS symptoms. Many women with fibromyalgia report increased pain and sensitivity in the entire body right before or during their menstrual cycle. Some women also suffer from endometriosis - another chronic condition that can cause pelvic pain due to displaced uterine lining.
4) Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Women with fibromyalgia are also more likely to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The link between the two syndromes has yet to be understood by researchers; however, there is a suspicion that both syndromes are connected to brain cells that are overly sensitive to stimuli. IBS, a common gastrointestinal disorder, is characterized by bouts of abdominal pain, digestive discomfort, diarrhea and constipation. The overlapping symptom is the pain, which can be debilitating and disruptive to the individual’s life.
5) Sensitivity - The overstimulated brain cells that are believed to be the root of fibromyalgia often become noticeable when an individual shows extreme sensitivity to touch, sounds, or light. Even movement can cause a sensory overload for individuals with fibromyalgia, which results in decreased mobility and changes in lifestyle. Women may also notice temperature sensitivity - having to have a sweater or a fan handy at all times in case of a major change in comfort levels.
Living with Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia can cause a lifetime of pain, however, it is not fatal. With proper medical care, good sleep, and adequate support the individual may be able to manage his or her symptoms. With a proper treatment plan, the level of life disturbances caused by the symptoms can be decreased if not eliminated.
Treatment options range from medications and pain relievers to physical therapy and mental health counseling. As fibromyalgia is a syndrome of many symptoms, individuals will have to determine their level and means of treatment based on their own unique set of maladies.