Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread pain around the body. The pain stems from a problem in the way the nervous system processes pain signals. Fibromyalgia also causes symptoms like tiredness, depression, and mental fog.
Doctors may not immediately consider fibromyalgia when evaluating these types of symptoms, because pain is also common with many other conditions. That’s one reason why it takes an average of five years for people with this disorder to get diagnosed.
Knowing the type and location of your pain, and what other symptoms you have, can help your doctor arrive at a diagnosis. The faster you get diagnosed, the sooner you can get started on a treatment to relieve your symptoms. Read on to learn some of the most common fibromyalgia symptoms, and a few unusual ones you might not expect.
Main signs and symptoms
The main symptom of fibromyalgia is pain and tenderness in muscles and joints throughout your body. The pain can shift from place to place, but to meet the criteria for a diagnosis, you’ll need to have experienced pain for at least three months. The pain must be in a specific number of body parts and be above a specific severity score. And, you must not have another condition (like arthritis) that could explain the pain.
Fibromyalgia also causes a number of other symptoms, such as:
- lack of energy
- trouble sleeping
- depression or anxiety
- memory problems and trouble concentrating (sometimes called “fibro fog”)
- muscle twitches or cramps
- numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- itching, burning, and other skin problems
Most severe symptoms
The pain from fibromyalgia can be intense and constant. It can be severe enough to keep you home from work and other activities. In a National Health Interview Survey, 87 percent of participants reported having pain on most days or every day of their lives.
Fibromyalgia can also cause intense emotional symptoms. Over 43 percent of people in the National Health Interview Survey had anxiety and depression that were severe enough to need medication. Of all the fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue can have one of the biggest impacts on your life. Constant fatigue affects more than 90 percent of people with the condition.
Fibromyalgia fatigue isn’t ordinary tiredness. It’s a bone-weary exhaustion that drains your body of energy and turns every activity into a chore. Between 40 and 70 percent of people with fibromyalgia also have uncomfortable symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, such as:
- diarrhea and/or constipation
- belly pain
And up to 70 percent have regular tension or migraine headaches, which are often severe. Headaches may stem from painful head, neck, or shoulder muscles.
More unusual symptoms
Here are a few other symptoms that you might not expect, but that can occur with fibromyalgia:
- excess sweating
- easy bruising
- sensitivity to noise, light, or temperature
- jaw pain
- chest pain
- bladder pain
- an urgent need to urinate
- food allergy symptoms like a stuffed nose, wheezing, diarrhea, or vomiting
How is fibromyalgia pain different from other types of pain?
Fibromyalgia pain is located in muscles and other soft tissues like joints. It’s unique in that it affects various sites all over the body. The pain is intensified because of the way the brain processes it. Fibromyalgia pain can be in the:
- middle and lower back
Everyone’s experience with fibromyalgia pain is different. Some people feel it all over their body. Others feel it only in certain muscles, like in their back or legs. The quality of the pain can differ from person to person, too. It’s been described as:
The intensity of the pain can vary based on the time of day and your activity. In some people it’s worse in the morning, or after they exercise. Stress, a lack of sleep, and the weather can also affect the type and intensity of fibromyalgia pain.
Treatments for fibromyalgia symptoms
Three drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating fibromyalgia:
- duloxetine (Cymbalta)
- milnacipran (Savella)
- pregabalin (Lyrica)
Cymbalta and Savella are antidepressants. They work by altering levels of chemicals in the brain and spinal cord that control the transmission of pain signals. Lyrica is an antiseizure drug. It stops the nerve cells involved in pain signaling from becoming overactive.
Other types of antidepressants and antiseizure drugs may also be effective in treating fibromyalgia. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and other pain relievers can help with short-term discomfort. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) aren’t effective because fibromyalgia doesn’t cause inflammation. These alternative treatments can also help relieve pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia:
- relaxation therapies
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- yoga and tai chi
Also try to exercise as much and as often as you can. Although it might hurt at first, if you stick with a program of aerobic fitness (like walking or bike riding) and toning exercises, you’ll eventually strengthen your muscles and reduce pain. Start slowly and gradually increase your intensity only when you feel ready. A physical therapist can teach you how to exercise safely.
Sleep can be hard to come by when you have fibromyalgia. Yet a lack of sleep can make you feel worse. If you’re struggling to fall asleep or to stay asleep all night, try limiting or avoiding caffeine and other stimulants before bed. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day to get your body into a rhythm.
Pain is the most obvious, and sometimes the most difficult, symptom of fibromyalgia. Other symptoms like fatigue, poor concentration, and depression or anxiety can also have a big effect on your life. Keep track of your symptoms in a diary so you can accurately report them to your doctor. If your current treatment doesn’t relieve your pain, work with your doctor to find something that does help you.