Fibromyalgia pain is characterized as broad, generalized pain that is often difficult to pinpoint and is not readily attributable to any specific cause (i.e., pain from a broken arm has an obvious cause; broad generalized pain does not). Generalized pain can vary in the way it is perceived from patient to patient. Some individuals describe their pain as a dull, aching sensation, whereas others may describe pain that radiates throughout their arms, legs, or back. Pain can also be described as a soreness, or even as a sharp, shooting sensation, almost “electrical” feeling in nature. Some may experience pain that manifests itself as a combination of these sensations. One of the key attributes to broad generalized pain, particularly as it typically presents itself in Fibromyalgia, is that the descriptions of the pain tend to vary to a large degree from patient to patient.
How We Perceive Pain
Pain is part of our body’s natural alarm system and alerts us when something is wrong. Our brains perceive pain through numerous types of nerve endings in our skin. These nerve endings process the external stimuli that touch the skin (e.g., cold, hot, pain), convert the energy from the stimulus into an electrical impulse, which is then transmitted to the brain where it is perceived as the painful sensation that we feel (e.g., coolness, heat, sharp pain). Researchers think that individuals with fibromyalgia have a disconnect or “glitch” in the way that their bodies process pain, making the body hypersensitive to stimuli that are not normally painful or magnifying mild pain signals into something more.
Pain and Fibromyalgia
The pain associated with fibromyalgia causes those who suffer from the condition to ache all over. Pain is by far the most defining symptom of fibromyalgia. Certain “tender points” on the body may ache regardless of the therapies that are pursued, and muscles can often feel as if they have been overworked despite the fact that the individual has not exercised. Those who have fibromyalgia may also experience twitching muscles, as well as pain that is described as a burning or stabbing sensation. Pain may be concentrated around the joints in the neck, back, shoulders, and hips, all of which can make it difficult to lie down and sleep or be active. Some patients describe numbness and severe stiffness (particularly in the morning) in addition to their pain. Fibromyalgia pain is often exacerbated (made worse) by cold or humid weather, sleep deficits, fatigue, excessive physical activity, lack of physical activity, and anxiety or stress.
Acute pain is pain that which originates suddenly, is severe in magnitude, and resolves over a period of time. Acute pain would be the kind of pain that occurs when a bone is broken. The pain is intense at first, alerting the individual to the broken bone, but it generally improves over time and eventually resolves within a few weeks. If pain persists for weeks or months, it becomes not only a symptom but a disease itself – chronic pain. The pain associated the fibromyalgia is chronic, in that it persists for much longer than one would expect following an illness or injury. It also perpetuates additional pain, as the body becomes more sensitive to pain and the degree of pain worsens. Areas that have not previously hurt may begin to do so.
Effects of Chronic Pain from Fibromyalgia
The pain associated with fibromyalgia has a profound impact on the way people with the disease live their lives. Headaches, joint aches, and neck pain all make reclining and relaxation difficult. Sleep disorders are a defining characteristic associated with pain in fibromyalgia. The sleep of fibromyalgia patients is constantly interrupted by periods of awake-like brain activity. This effectively limits the amount of time they spend in deep sleep and keeps them from having true, restful sleep that the body depends upon for replenishment. The chronic lack of sleep associated with fibromyalgia leads to increased pain and aching, morning stiffness and constant daytime fatigue, creating a seemingly endless cycle of pain and fatigue. Pain in the foot, ankle, knee and hip make it difficult to exercise and maintain an active lifestyle. This can lead to social isolation. If treatment is not successful in managing any of the pain associated with fibromyalgia, it can be difficult for individuals to cope, resulting in increased irritability, anxiety, isolation and depression. Symptoms tend to “feed” off one another forming strong negative feedback loops that can be extremely difficult to break.
Common Treatments for Fibromyalgia Pain
There is no “one size fits all” treatment for fibromyalgia. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. For most individuals, a combination of different therapies will likely have the greatest effect. Certain medications, including antidepressants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Aleve and Advil), prescription pain medications, muscle relaxants and nerve medications may provide relief for some individuals. Complementary and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, and aromatherapy have also shown promise for some fibromyalgia sufferers. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that helps patients understand how their thoughts and feelings influence their behaviors. It may be useful for fibromyalgia patients who also suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Research also shows that low- to moderate-intensity physical exercise can provide relief for many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia and improve overall quality of life and well-being.