History of Fibromyalgia

By Karen Lee Richards

Fibromyalgia is usually thought of as a fairly new illness, however, it may have actually existed for centuries.  Although the term “fibromyalgia” was first coined in 1976, physicians have written about conditions resembling FM since the early 1800s.  Reports of illnesses with strikingly similar symptoms can even be found as far back as around 1500 BC. 

Notable Historical Accounts

Probably the earliest description of a fibromyalgia-like condition is found in the Biblical account of Job’s physical anguish.  “I, too, have been assigned months of futility, long and weary nights of misery.  When I go to bed, I think, `When will it be morning?'  But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn…And now my heart is broken.  Depression haunts my days.  My weary nights are filled with pain as though something were relentlessly gnawing at my bones.”  (Job 7:3-4 and 30:16-17 - NLT)

In the 19th century, the English army nurse and Red Cross pioneer Florence Nightingale was taken ill with fibromyalgia-like symptoms.  She became ill while working on the front lines during the Crimean War (1854 – 1856) and never really recovered.  Until her death in 1910, Nightingale was virtually bedridden much of the time, suffering with unrelenting pain and fatigue. 


Following are some of the more significant dates in the history of fibromyalgia:

•    1600s – Fibromyalgia-like symptoms were first given a name: muscular rheumatism.

•    1816 – Dr. William Balfour, surgeon at the University of Edinburgh, gave the first full description of fibromyalgia.

•    1824 – Dr. Balfour described tender points.

•    1904 – Sir William Gowers coined the term fibrositis (literally meaning inflammation of fibers) to denote the tender points found in patients with muscular rheumatism.

•    1972 – Dr. Hugh Smythe laid the foundation for the modern definition of fibromyalgia by describing widespread pain and tender points.

•    1975 – The first sleep electroencephalogram study identifying the sleep disturbances that accompany fibromyalgia was performed.

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