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Treating and Diagnosing Fibromyalgia

Research shows that people with fibromyalgia typically see many doctors before receiving the diagnosis. One reason for this may be that pain and fatigue, the main symptoms of fibromyalgia, overlap with those of many other conditions. Therefore, doctors often have to rule out other potential causes of these symptoms before making a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Another reason is that there are currently no diagnostic laboratory tests for fibromyalgia; standard laboratory tests fail to reveal a physiologic reason for pain. Because there is no generally accepted, objective test for fibromyalgia, some doctors unfortunately may conclude a patient’s pain is not real, or they may tell the patient there is little they can do.

A doctor familiar with fibromyalgia, however, can make a diagnosis based on criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR): a history of widespread pain lasting more than 3 months, and the presence of diffuse tenderness. Pain is considered to be widespread when it affects all four quadrants of the body, meaning it must be felt on both the left and right sides of the body as well as above and below the waist. ACR also has designated 18 sites on the body as possible tender points. To meet the strict criteria for a fibromyalgia diagnosis, a person must have 11 or more tender points, but often patients with fibromyalgia will not always be this tender, especially men. People who have fibromyalgia certainly may feel pain at other sites too, but those 18 standard possible sites on the body are the criteria used for classification.

Fibromyalgia can be difficult to treat. Not all doctors are familiar with fibromyalgia and its treatment, so it is important to find a doctor who is. Many family physicians, general internists, or rheumatologists (doctors who specialize in arthritis and other conditions that affect the joints or soft tissues) can treat fibromyalgia.

Treatment often requires a team approach, with your doctor, a physical therapist, possibly other health professionals, and most importantly, yourself, all playing an active role. It can be hard to assemble this team, and you may struggle to find the right professionals to treat you. When you do, however, the combined expertise of these various professionals can help you improve your quality of life.

Only three medications, duloxetine (Cymbalta1), milnacipran (Savella), and pregabalin (Lyrica) are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of fibromyalgia. Cymbalta was originally developed for and is still used to treat depression. Savella is similar to a drug used to treat depression, but is FDA approved only for fibromyalgia. Lyrica is a medication developed to treat neuropathic pain (chronic pain caused by damage to the nervous system).

Following are some of the most commonly used categories of drugs for fibromyalgia.

Analgesics are painkillers. They range from over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) to prescription medicines, such as tramadol (Ultram), and even stronger narcotic preparations. For a subset of people with fibromyalgia, narcotic medications are prescribed for severe muscle pain. However, there is no solid evidence showing that for most people narcotics actually work to treat the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, and most doctors hesitate to prescribe them for long-term use because of the potential that the person taking them will become physically or psychologically dependent on them.

As their name implies, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen sodium (Anaprox, Aleve), are used to treat inflammation. Although inflammation is not a symptom of fibromyalgia, NSAIDs also relieve pain. The drugs work by inhibiting substances in the body called prostaglandins, which play a role in pain and inflammation. These medications, some of which are available without a prescription, may help ease the muscle aches of fibromyalgia. They may also relieve menstrual cramps and the headaches often associated with fibromyalgia.

Perhaps the most useful medications for fibromyalgia are several in the antidepressant class. These drugs work equally well in fibromyalgia patients with and without depression, because antidepressants elevate the levels of certain chemicals in the brain (including serotonin and norepinephrine) that are associated not only with depression, but also with pain and fatigue. Increasing the levels of these chemicals can reduce pain in people who have fibromyalgia. Doctors prescribe several types of antidepressants for people with fibromyalgia.

Benzodiazepines can sometimes help people with fibromyalgia by relaxing tense, painful muscles and stabilizing the erratic brain waves that can interfere with deep sleep. Benzodiazepines also can relieve the symptoms of restless legs syndrome, a neurological disorder that is more common among people with fibromyalgia. The disorder is characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, particularly when at rest. Doctors usually prescribe benzodiazepines only for people who have not responded to other therapies because of the potential for addiction.

In addition to the previously described general categories of drugs, doctors may recommend or prescribe others, depending on a person’s specific symptoms or fibromyalgia-related conditions. For example, for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), doctors may suggest fiber supplements, laxatives or other prescription drugs to relieve constipation.

Antispasmodic medications may be useful for relieving intestinal spasms and reducing abdominal pain. Other symptom-specific medications include sleep medications, muscle relaxants, and headache remedies.

People with fibromyalgia also may benefit from a combination of physical and occupational therapy, from learning pain management and coping techniques, and from properly balancing rest and activity.