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The Fight In The Dark

Fibromyalgia (FM) Feels Like!

If we all woke up in the morning, every morning, feeling like a truck just ran over us, we'd have a hint of what fibromyalgia feels like. If our days were filled with constant muscle soreness that varied from bad to excruciating, but we barely had the energy to do anything about it because of the fatigue, brain fog, poor sleep and flu like symptoms, we just might understand what life is like for someone that suffers from FM. But while the Arthritis Foundation lists FM as the second leading form of arthritis, most of us have never even heard of it.

People that suffer from FM are sensitive to smells, sounds, light, and vibrations. Headaches are a common symptom. So are muscle twitches, ringing in the earns, dry eyes alternating with watery eyes and a chronic runny nose that isn't caused by a virus or bacterium. Added stress will cause flare ups. During a flare up, people with FM are more likely to misplace their keys and forget where they parked their vehicle. They may lose their balance or get dizzy if they turn their head to quickly. If they are required to sit still for a long period of time such as on a plane trip or in a board meeting, their muscles get rigid and painful. They may gain weight. Though pain is the most common symptom, the list is long and is different for everyone.

Fibromyalgia can occur at any age and tends to fluctuate from hour to hour and day to day. A thunderstorm may worsen the pain. So much for the old saying " these old joints can feel a storm a com-en". A good night's sleep can do wonders. Unfortunately, a common symptom of FM is poor quality of sleep, called the alpha-delta sleep anomaly, where as soon as you reach a level of deep delta sleep, alpha brain waves bump you back to shallow sleep. The body needs delta sleep to do its repair work. Many people with FM suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, which also disturbs their sleep.

FM is associated with more than 46 different infections, metabolic, neurologic and neoplastic conditions including esophageal reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, low-back pain and osteoarthritis. But FM alone has no visible signs, which is probably why people who suffer from it can't always get the help and support they need.

Is Fibromyalgia A Real Disease?

FM has been called an "invisible illness" because, no matter how awful it feels, people who have it don't look sick and the usual medical tests come back negative. Suffers have been told everything from "it's all in you head/mind" to "everybody experiences pain, just live with it". Without the possibility of a lab test result, many physicians have been reluctant to recommend anything but a recommendation to a psychiatrist's office. Devin J. Starlanyl M.D., author of The Fibromyalgia Advocate, refers to this common reaction as a "hardening of the attitudes." FM is in fact, a chronic disorder involving the entire body above and below the waist and on both sides.

The syndrome isn't new. William Balfour, a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh, first described FM in 1816. The American Medical Association recognized FM as a true illness and a major cause of disability in 1987. In 1990, the American College of Rheumatology set the criteria for diagnosis as the existence of pain in 11 of 18 "tender points" for three months or longer. That, and the tendency of sufferers to say they felt like a truck hit them, led researchers to describe it as looking for the "18-wheeler sign."

Still, even today, many doctors dismiss it as a "fad disease" and give sufferers little sympathy or support. Not surprisingly, suffers have a hard time finding a physician trained to diagnose and treat their illness. One patient said it was as easy to find help as fighting in the dark.

Where's the Proof?

People with FM know their pain is real, and now there is medical proof. Researchers can look at the brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see differences in activity and identify the variations in how FM patients process sensory information.

In a study reported in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, Richard H. Gracely, Ph.D. and Daniel J. Clauw, M.D., gave fMRI scans to both FM patients and people without FM. The brains of the people without FM only became active when they felt pain. But the brains of the FM patients became highly active even when they felt only slight pressure. Gracely says this is important because it shows the brain response is consistent with what patients are saying.

Researchers say fibromyalgia seems to be at least partially inherited and can show up after episodes of stress, illness or injury. But only 20 percent of  FM cases have a known triggering event that initiates the first obvious flare up. During a flare, current symptoms become more intense and new symptoms may develop. FM has no known cure. The good news is it isn't progressive, and it isn't fatal.

Acknowledging its existence is only the first step out of the dark ages of FM research. Still, this validation offers some comfort to sufferers. No one should have to prove they are in pain, but the existence of medical research can help others understand what people with FM are going through.


Some physicians prescribe a grocery list of drugs in an attempt to control the multiple symptoms, but patients complain of disappointing results and distressing side effects. A program of good nutrition, gentle stretching and moderate exercise can help, even though the prospect of exercising my be overwhelming. Some people find relief through physical therapy, acupuncture, tai chi and yoga.

Many curable conditions mimic FM, so people should ask their doctors about tests. Simultaneous conditions will also need to be addressed. And, of course, they'll need to find a doctor who believes in and knows how to treat FM. Before seeing a doctor, people can track their symptoms by writing down a list of stressful activities, noting dates, times, symptoms and levels of pain, from aching, burning, numbness to pins and needles to full on stabbing or shooting pain.

Social support is essential. Isolation can lead to thoughts of suicide-the number one killer of people with FM. Talking to others who share the same experiences can shed new light on living with FM. People may have to learn to live with a chronic "invisible illness." But as Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Hearing about others who are managing well encourages people not to let their FM define them-they are so much more than this disease.

Many fibromyalgia suffers turn to Vitalzym to relieve their pain.

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