Fibromyalgia is sometimes called the “invisible illness.” It doesn’t show up in obvious ways like broken limbs or oozing sores, but for the 4 million adults in America who suffer from the condition, it can be painful and debilitating. For reasons that are not clearly understood, it affects twice as many women as men. (In 2017, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffered from fibromyalgia.) The main symptom is chronic widespread pain and extreme sensitivity to touch. Other signs include numbness, tingling, fatigue, depression and even digestive problems like bloating and constipation.
Although there are no diagnostic tests for the condition, in 2016 the American College of Rheumatology updated a set of criteria for a fibromyalgia diagnosis: widespread pain at a level of 7 or higher, symptoms that have been there at the same intensity for at least three months, and no evidence of another disorder that may explain the symptoms.
There is no clear cause for fibromyalgia. Although recent research suggests there may be a genetic component, it most often occurs as the result of a physical trauma or emotional stress.
Medications for fibromyalgia
While there’s no cure-all pill for fibromyalgia, there are medications available to relieve its symptoms. The following three prescription drugs are approved by the FDA specifically for treating fibromyalgia.
- Duloxetine (brand name Cymbalta): Cymbalta increases the activity of two brain neurotransmitters that are linked to mood and pain.
- Milnacipran (brand name Savella): Savella targets the same neurotransmitters — serotonin and norepinephrine — improving mood and decreasing perception of pain.
- Pregabalin (brand name Lyrica): Lyrica has been reported to reduce pain up to 25 percent.
Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen have not been proven to help fibromyalgia.
Ask Lynne Matallana, founder and president of the National Fibromyalgia Association. Surgery when she was in her 30s triggered the onset of fibromyalgia, forcing her to spend two years in bed. “I was told I was crazy. I was told I was lazy,” she says. Even her mother didn’t believe her. Matallana finally found a doctor who identified fibromyalgia. She had no idea what that was, but was relieved to have some answer to her pain. “He told me, ‘You need to do your part and I will do my part,’ ” Matallana says. “That was life-changing for me.”
She found that advice life-changing because the doctor told her she could take charge of her treatment. There are several medications for fibromyalgia, but “self-care is one of the most important parts of getting better,” says Matallana. In the last 20 years, there has been a sea change in public opinion about the best way to treat the condition. “Back in the early 2000s, when the National Fibromyalgia Association did market research with patients, 97 percent said they wanted a pill,” says Matallana. “Today only about 47 percent say they want a pill.” The rest are interested in alternative and complementary treatment choices.
These treatments, singly or combined, include:
1. Gentle exercise
Exercise is an important part of fibromyalgia treatment, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Experts recommend sticking to low-impact aerobics like swimming or walking. But a person in pain may not be so anxious to exercise.
Daniel Clauw, a professor of anesthesiology, rheumatology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, in an interview with the National Fibromyalgia Association, suggests using the word “activity” in place of “exercise.” Activity can mean something as simple as walking around your house. Start slowly and build up. “Every week just add half a minute to your walking routine,” Matallana says.