Living with constant pain is a burden most people fortunately will never have to face. But for millions of Americans with fibromyalgia, pain is a reality that often defines their very existence. Pat Abernathy has been learning to live with and around this pain, and it’s not always easy.
‘There are some days you do not want to get out of bed,’ Abernathy says. ‘There are days when I start to put my feet on the floor and then fall back into bed because I hurt so badly.’
Her pain, caused by fibromyalgia syndrome, has put limits on her life that Abernathy never imagined. ‘I’ve found that whatever I do, whether it’s cleaning the house of working outside, it takes me so much longer because I have to sit and rest every 20 minutes,’ Abernathy says. ‘I’ve had to figure out whether I want to give something up or do it and pay the consequences.’
Although her pain is quite real, the cause is not readily apparent. ‘It’s not visible,’ she explains. ‘If you looked at me, you would never think there was anything wrong.’
But Dr. Geetha Reddy, a rheumatologist at the University of Missouri Health Sciences Center, attests that Abernathy’s pain is genuine. For most fibromyalgia patients, the pain may begin in one spot and spread over time. ‘Patients often come in saying they hurt all over,’ Dr. Reddy says. ‘The pain often is to the point of causing interruptions in their daily activities and job descriptions.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia originally was thought to be a form of arthritis or joint disease, but the painful disorder actually is centered in the muscles. Reports of fibromyalgia dating back to the 17th century referred to the disorder as muscular rheumatism, fibrositis and fibromyositis. It was not until the mid-1970s that the term fibromyalgia was introduced. Although many of those early descriptions referred to inflammation in the muscles, research has since proven that the muscles are not inflamed but rather are just stiff and painful.
According to Dr. Reddy, stiffness, extreme fatigue and chronic pain characterize fibromyalgia. Statistics show that 3 to 6 percent of the American population has symptoms that point to fibromyalgia. Seventy-five percent of fibromyalgia sufferers are female. Although Dr. Reddy has diagnosed fibromyalgia in 80-year-old patients, the disorder is more common in people between 20 and 60 years of age.
Because it has no known cause and is characterized by symptoms common in other conditions, fibromyalgia can be difficult for patients to explain and doctors to diagnose. It often mimics such disorders as chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism and parathyroidism. While tests cannot specifically identify fibromyalgia as the problem, they can help rule out these and other possible diagnoses.
‘If a patient has rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or any other form of connective tissue disease, tests will show it,’ Dr. Reddy says. ‘In most fibromyalgia patients, all the blood work and lab tests come back normal.’
In the past these normal test results and a general lack of knowledge within the medical community compounded the confusion surrounding fibromyalgia. For many years, patients not only had to cope with the pain, but they also had to deal with doctors who were unable to diagnose the problem. ‘Many physicians would tell patients that the pain was all in their minds and that they just had to forget it or live with it,’ Dr. Reddy says.
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