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Take Ten: 10 Nice-to-Know Facts about Fibromyalgia

Peterson, James A. Ph.D., FACSM

doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000298472.68124.ed

10 Nice-to-Know Facts about Fibromyalgia.

James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.

1. The invisible disability. The primary symptoms of fibromyalgia include widespread pain in the soft fi-brous tissues in the body (muscles, ligaments, and tendons), profound fatigue, and disrupted sleeping. Virtually impossible for untrained observers to detect, the illness typically causes individuals to suffer what seems to be a postviral state, in which their energy supply has been unplugged.

2. What's in a name? Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome share a number of common similarities. Both tend to affect young female adults, result from unknown causes, are chronic in nature, involve no pathology, exhibit normal laboratory results, and are characterized by almost identical symptoms. These likenesses lead many experts to believe that the two illnesses may actually be the same condition.

3. A puzzling mystery. The underlying causes of fibromyalgia remain unknown. Current opinion concerning the basic mechanisms of this condition centers around a theory referred to as "central sensitization." This theory hypothesizes that those with fibromyalgia have a lower threshold for pain because of increased sensitivity to pain signals in their brain.

4. Chances are. Although the medical community does not know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, specific risk factors have been identified that tend to predispose a person to contracting the condition. For example, fibromyalgia occurs more often in women than in men. It also tends to develop during early and middle adulthood, although instances of children and older adults being affected with it have been documented. An individual who has a relative with fibromyalgia also is more likely to have this condition.

5. An army of walking wounded. Because of their somewhat ill-defined illness, individuals with fibromyalgia often are referred to as "walking wounded." Affecting an estimated three to six million Americans, this condition produces a medical conundrum-"vertically ill" patients who are too sick to function normally but who are typically not quite sick enough to actually become bed bound ("horizontally ill").

6. Smart choice. If undertaken properly, exercise can help those with fibromyalgia stay fit and experience a better quality of life. The key is to engage in an exercise program that does not exacerbate or cause the condition to flare up. In that regard, initially, the exercise regimen should be moderate in intensity, involve relatively brief bouts of activity, and progress slowly over time. Activities that place minimal levels of stress on the body's musculoskeletal system are preferred (e.g., swimming, biking, and walking).

7. A recipe for success. No diet, no matter how well planned, will "cure" fibromyalgia. On the other hand, a diet rich in antioxidants (e.g., full of fruits and vegetables) can help individuals with this condition maximize their health by minimizing the level of oxidative stress that can occur in the body's tissues. Unduly high levels of this stress can lead to lower pain thresholds, higher muscle pain levels, and greater fatigue levels.

8. Discretion is essential. Several vitamins and nutritional supplements have been found to help reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, the marketplace also is full of dietary aids that make unfounded claims and offer unfulfilled benefits. As such, those with fibromyalgia should make sure that any vitamins or nutritional supplements they decide to take are backed by research rather than greed.

9. Even keel. Individuals with fibromyalgia should keep their activity level on a relatively even pace. Doing too much on their good days may lead to more bad days. Doing too little may deprive them of the physical and mental boosts that can result from being active.

10. The path well chosen. Those with fibromyalgia who want to maximize their efforts to manage their condition should do whatever they can to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In this regard, among the steps that they can take are to reduce their level of stress, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat appropriate foods, limit their intake of caffeine, and engage in emotionally fulfilling activities.

© 2008 American College of Sports Medicine