What is Fibromyalgia?

by Karen Lee Richards, ChronicPainConnection Expert

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Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic pain illness characterized by widespread pain, general fatigue and sleep disturbances.  Because much of the pain and tenderness experienced with fibromyalgia is felt in the muscles and soft tissues, for many years FM was thought to be a musculoskeletal disorder.  However, new brain-imaging techniques and scientific studies are revealing that fibromyalgia is better defined as a central nervous system disorder resulting in abnormal pain processing.

According to recent estimates, approximately 5% of the population has fibromyalgia.  That adds up to 15 million people in the U.S. alone.  It seems to occur at similar rates worldwide, regardless of ethnicity.  Although fibromyalgia appears to affect more women, it does strike men and children as well. 


There are three primary symptoms, common to virtually everyone with fibromyalgia:  pain, fatigue and sleep disorders.

Pain:  Fibromyalgia pain is widespread, chronic, and can range in intensity from mild to profound.  It is a migrating pain, affecting different parts of the body at different times, and may manifest itself as muscular aching, throbbing, burning, shooting pain, or sharp, stabbing pain.  It can also produce an all-over body ache, described by patients as feeling like they have the flu all the time.  People with fibromyalgia often report waking with severe pain and stiffness. 

Fatigue:  Fatigue is often the most difficult symptom to describe to others because everyone knows what it feels like to be tired.  However, the fatigue of fibromyalgia is so much more than just being tired—it is a pervasive, all-encompassing exhaustion that can interfere with even the most basic and simple daily activities.  The fatigue of FM has been described by patients as feeling like someone pulled their plug and disconnected them from their power source. 

Sleep Disorders:  Most people with fibromyalgia have difficulty sleeping and do not awake feeling refreshed.  Research studies have shown that FM patients spend little or no time in deep, stage four sleep.  Their deep sleep is repeatedly interrupted by bursts of awake-like brain activity.  Since this is the stage of sleep during which the body replenishes itself, fibromyalgia patients are not able to get restful, restorative sleep. 

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