Millions know how debilitating the condition can be, but getting the right diagnosis is still a challenge.
For Amy Mullholand, simple chores like washing the dishes or making breakfast can be incredibly challenging. “On a good day, I can get through the cups and the silverware, then I must sit for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Then I tackle the bowls. Then I sit and rest,” said Mullholand. “On a bad day, I have literally cried from the pain of standing long enough to fry an egg.”
Before she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia two years ago, Mullholand — like a lot of people — thought the disorder’s symptoms were mild aches and pains. “How could I be in so much pain and have it just be fibromyalgia?” The main symptom is chronic, widespread pain, but it can also cause headaches, sleeping problems, fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Mullholand, 42, has severe pain in her shoulders, neck, back, and hips. She constantly feels like she doesn’t have any energy. “I wish people knew more about the day-to-day life that people with fibromyalgia have to live, and understood the real pain and sickness that we feel,” she said.
As many as 12 million Americans know what it means to live with fibromyalgia, according to the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA). Doctors don’t know what causes it, though stress, infection, or physical trauma can sometimes trigger symptoms. The fact that 9 out of 10 people with fibromyalgia are women suggests that female hormones may be a contributing factor.
Research points to changes in the pain pathways throughout the body of patients with fibromyalgia. An August study in the journal Pain found that half of a group of 27 fibromyalgia patients had damage to nerve fibers in their skin. “This provides some of the first objective evidence of a mechanism behind some cases of fibromyalgia, and identifying an underlying cause is the first step towards finding better treatments,” said study author Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, director of the Nerve Injury Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Diagnosing it can be tricky because symptoms often come and go and resemble other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. An ACPA survey found that 77 percent of cases take three years or more to be properly diagnosed. Mullholand’s primary care doctor at first suspected she had the autoimmune condition lupus. Continue reading to next page…