Learn to spot the difference between normal aches and pains and something more serious.
You’ve been feeling wiped out and can’t seem to shake it. Or maybe you’re stiff and achy all over for no obvious reason. You remember reading about fibromyalgia and can’t help but wonder, could this be it?
If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, you’re in good company. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia affects about 2 percent of American adults (or about 4 million people), yet the exact causes are unknown.
What we do know: The chronic condition can affect people of all ages, even children, although you’re more likely to have fibromyalgia as you get older. People with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis—two common autoimmune conditions that affect your joints, tendons, bones, and muscles—are also at a higher risk.
The CDC adds that fibromyalgia can cause widespread pain, disability, and a lower quality of life. You may also have complications—people living with fibromyalgia are twice as likely to be hospitalized for any reason and three times more likely to have major depression.
The good news is that fibromyalgia can be effectively treated and managed—once it’s diagnosed. That is why catching it in the early stages can be so helpful. Here are five signs you might be headed toward developing the condition, plus what to do if you notice them.
Sign #1: You’re So Tired You Regularly Cancel Plans
Everyone feels tired sometimes, and you may simply not have as much energy as you once did. But with fibromyalgia, you don’t just feel low energy—there’s often a deep, continuous, extensive exhaustion, says Luiza Petre, M.D., assistant clinical professor of cardiology at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
This can lead to things like changing your plans so you don’t have to go out with family, or not having grandkids visit because it feels like more than you can handle. You might lose interest in hobbies or activities that used to fire you up, because you feel so depleted.
Sign #2: Your Body Hurts All Over
Another major symptom of fibromyalgia is nonspecific achiness, which means you don’t have sharp pain, but rather your whole body feels achy, Dr. Petre says. Some people have an ache that moves around from day to day, she adds. For example, you might have neck pain one day, then shoulder pain the next, and low back pain after that.
Why does the pain travel? Because it’s not rooted in specific muscles or joints, like with arthritis or an acute injury. Rather, medical experts believe fibromyalgia affects the way your nervous system processes pain signals, causing hypersensitivity. This is why there may also be tender spots throughout your body or tingling and burning in your hands and feet.
Sign #3: You Feel Weak, Stiff, or Unstable
The elevated cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”) that often comes with fibromyalgia can cause a breakdown of proteins in your body, Dr. Petre explains. When that happens, you’ll begin to lose muscle mass and bone density at a faster rate—and keep in mind that when you get older, you’re already experiencing that at an accelerated rate compared to when you were younger.
Because of this, you may find it’s harder to lift objects that never gave you trouble before. For instance, picking up a full laundry basket may seem like more weight now. You could also feel like you have less range of motion or that your joints are stiff.
Balance is another concern, since low muscle mass can increase your risk of falls. In fact, a study published in the journal Calcified Tissue International found older adults with age-related loss of muscle and strength, known as sarcopenia, reported higher numbers of falls in the last year and a higher prevalence of fractures.
Sign #4: Mood Swings and Irritability
When your body aches everywhere and you’re exhausted, it’s not surprising that you might feel emotional—that’s a common part of fibromyalgia, says Medhat Mikhael, M.D., pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
“With this condition, your central nervous system is upregulated, so it’s like the volume of everything is way up, all the time,” he says. “That can definitely lead to mood swings, symptoms of depression, irritability, and stress.”
Sign #5: You Can’t Get the Quality Sleep You Need
One effect of the nonspecific pain and central nervous system involvement is a lack of deep, quality sleep, Dr. Mikhael says. Unfortunately, that can make the other symptoms worse. For instance, without enough sleep, your fatigue and pain could become even more problematic.
Research on fibromyalgia-related sleep issues suggests that these disturbances can play a critical role in making symptoms worse and lead to lower levels of activity during the day—all creating a challenging ripple effect.
What to Do if You Notice These Signs
If the symptoms on this list look familiar, it’s important to get checked by your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will use your medical history, a physical examination, and possibly x-rays and bloodwork to make a diagnosis.
If you are diagnosed with fibromyalgia, treatment typically involves a combination of medications and lifestyle changes to help manage stress, promote quality sleep, and build or maintain muscle mass, according to the CDC. Work with your doctor to figure out the best treatment plan for you.
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