Fibromyalgia: How Do I Know I Have It?

“I wake up every morning with a stiff, sore lower back. When I roll over to get out of bed, I feel like a log and almost have to fall out of bed. When I finally get to my feet, I’m all bent over and can’t stand upright for what seems like forever! It takes a couple of hours before it gradually loosens up enough so I don’t have to shuffle with each step. I was told by a friend that I might have something called fibromyalgia and should ask my chiropractor. What do you think?”

To answer this inquiry, let’s first define fibromyalgia (FM) so that we can compare the two properly. FM is a condition that is diagnosed by eliminating all other possible causes, including inflammatory joint conditions, by running various blood tests such as an arthritic profile. This usually includes tests for rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, and infection. A Lyme disease test is often included as that condition can often manifest as a chronic back condition from any cause. There are essentially no blood tests, x-ray or other imaging tests, or neurological tests that can specifically diagnose FM. It is when all these tests come back negative that a diagnosis of FM is entertained. The patient’s history is probably the most important aspect of the clinical encounter that helps in the diagnosis of FM. Most of these patients will report that the onset was gradual, often present for years. There is usually no specific cause though there are specific conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome, trauma, rheumatoid arthritis and others) that can result in “secondary fibromyalgia,” where the cause is well known. The big differentiating historical feature is the presence of widespread, whole body pain – NOT just low back pain, as reported in the first paragraph above. In FM, there is often pain in the legs, arms, torso, back, and neck and these people basically, “…hurt all over.” Typically, there is no radiating pain down the leg or arm that follows a specific nerve pathway and no exam findings of neurological deficits. Another unique feature of FM includes sleep dysfunction. In many cases, sleep interruptions occur 2, 3, or more times a night, often with difficulty returning to sleep. The quality of pain is often described as numbness, tingling, burning, achy, deep, boring, and most importantly generalized in location (all over the body). The intensity is usually reported as high (>6/10 pain scale scores). The past history usually includes multiple visits to many different types of doctors and many attempts at different medications is common – most of which do not help significantly.

Even with these unique historical features that are consistent with the diagnosis of FM, it is still necessary to “rule out” other conditions by running tests as previously described. This is especially important when FM is secondary to other conditions and can get “lost” in the shuffle, overshadowed by the other condition.

Treatment for FM includes many of the same methods for treating other musculoskeletal conditions. Spinal manipulation, soft tissue release techniques (massage therapy, trigger point therapy, myofascial release), and various forms of physical therapy (low level laser therapy – LLLT, ultrasound, interferential electrical current – IFC, and pulsed magnetic therapy can also improve function, reduce pain, and reduce the need for medications). Cognitive therapy, addressing psychosocial issues, can also be very effective. One of the most important treatment approaches is exercise. This has been consistently described as being an important form of care for the FM patient. In addition, dietary management using an anti-inflammatory diet (gluten-free diet) and supplementation (a multiple vitamin, calcium/magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and CoQ10) can also be very effective.