According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 50 million adults in the United States are diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes muscle pain and fatigue leading to chronic pain and tenderness throughout the body. In many cases, fibromyalgia is diagnosed at the onset of middle age and can grow more acute the older you become. Despite this, fibromyalgia can strike at any age. Sufferers are disproportionately women, between 80 to 90 percent, although children and men can be afflicted too.

Trouble sleeping, headaches, morning stiffness, tingling in the feet and hands, cramps and other acute abdominal discomfort, as well as memory problems and fogginess, are symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.

Living with two or more chronic pain conditions is not uncommon for those diagnosed with fibromyalgia. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or a family history of fibromyalgia, you may be at greater risk of developing the disorder.

The Invisible Illness

The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. Medical research has made significant advances toward understanding the disorder over the last half century. However, much remains a mystery due to the variety of symptoms, and age groups afflicted with the disorder. For years, many medical professionals often assumed the pain associated with fibromyalgia was in “the patient’s head,” not a true condition. Or, they felt that is was another disorder entirely, given its links to depression, anxiety, and loss of concentration.

May is National Fibromyalgia Month, and May 12th is National Fibromyalgia Day. Aches and Gains is doing its part to bring attention to this little understood and “invisible illness.” I encourage you to participate in awareness activities in your area such as Together Walk events. Sponsored by The National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association, Together Walks are local and virtual walking events to raise funding for research supporting, “new exploration in areas such as small fiber neuropathy, cervical cord compression, and myofascial release which may bring promising new integrative pain treatments.”

Stressful or traumatic events, repetitive injuries, illness and other conditions such as lupus and arthritis are all factors linked to fibromyalgia.

How Fibromyalgia is Diagnosed and Treated

A scoring system is used to make the diagnosis – widespread pain index, and a symptom severity scale. If these scores add up to specific numbers, then physicians can make the diagnosis. In the past, a tender point exam was used, but that is no longer a part of the assessment. Because fibromyalgia can mimic other conditions, a limited number of lab tests can differentiate it from similar disorders. Doctors use these tests to determine if there are inflammatory disorders present (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, for example) and if so, then patients may need a referral to a specialist.

Fibromyalgia can be treated with prescription medications such as Lyrica, Cymbalta, and Savella and drugs such as Neurontin and Amitriptyline. Aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening routines, yoga, meditation, massage and cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist are strategies that will help manage the pain as well.

Healthline has a great compiled list of treatments that you can browse and read more in depth.

While the science has yet to clearly define the disorder, some studies suggest a gene or genes may be involved in making the body react to stimuli that other people may not find painful, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

UCLA, Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Illinois-Chicago, and a Los Angeles biomedical company recently announced a joint study to identify genetic mutations unique to fibromyalgia in up to 250,000 patients. They will also investigate a vaccine that could effectively treat and alter the biological problems associated with the disorder.

Where do I start?

For those living with fibromyalgia, there are a number of options and resources to improve your quality of life. The CDC recommends moderate physical activity for 150 minutes per week, which could include walking, swimming, or biking 30 minutes a day for five days a week or in shorter segments. Many local YMCAs, YWCAs, parks and community centers offer physical activity programs that are “proven effective for reducing pain and disability related to arthritis and improving mood and the ability to move.” This program could also benefit patients suffering from the pain and disability of fibromyalgia. Self-management education classes help people living with arthritis or other conditions—including fibromyalgia—be more “confident in how to control their symptoms, how to live well and understand how the condition affects their lives.”

The chronic pain of fibromyalgia not only affects patients physically, but also emotionally and socially. If you are struggling to engage in exercise, education classes and other activities, try bringing a friend or two along to an activity that you can all enjoy, like yoga or walking. All that matters is that you START.

For the Aches and Gains radio show, I interviewed actress AJ Langer, best known for her television roles on My So Called LifeSeinfeld, and Coach about her struggles and ultimate success with fibromyalgia following her diagnosis as a teenager. Listen to the episode here to learn more about living with the disorder, and what you can do to improve your own quality of life.

Other helpful resources:

Remember, no one is immune to pain, but together we can overcome it.