Men with Fibromyalgia
Men are often overlooked in discussions about fibromyalgia because it seems to affect significantly more women than men. A friend of mine may have best summed up how men feel about this when, upon learning that he had fibromyalgia said, "Leave it to me to get a woman’s disease."
Although FM does affect a higher percentage of women, it is definitely not just a woman’s disease. Experts disagree on the estimated ratio of women to men. One epidemiological study found the female to male ratio to be three to one, but a 2001 review of research placed the ratio at nine to one. I doubt that we’ll ever have an exact figure because men are often more reluctant to go to the doctor and doctors sometimes don’t diagnose men with FM because they think of it as primarily affecting women.
The subject of whose symptoms are worse - men’s or women’s - can foster a lively debate. Once again, there are contradictory studies. One study found that men with FM have fewer tender points and less fatigue, morning stiffness and irritable bowel. But another study found that men reported more severe symptoms, a greater decrease in physical function, and a lower quality of life.
Since symptom severity is pretty much a subjective measurement, it’s hard to compare any two patients, particularly when they are of opposite sexes. From a young age, boys are taught to be tough, to push through the pain, and not to complain. As men, they often tend to keep quiet about their pain and minimize the severity of their symptoms. Women, on the other hand, seem to feel more comfortable voicing their complaints and asking questions.
With respect to FM symptoms, I suspect there are some gender differences. But I don’t think the differences are great enough to dwell on them. Whether you’re male or female, pain hurts and needs to be treated.
It’s a Guy Thing
Although the roles of men and women in our society have been changing and the gender gap has been narrowing, some distinct differences remain. There still tends to be a "big boys don’t cry" attitude. Young males are still taught not to show fear and to play through the pain.
Whether it is taught or innate can be debated, but the fact is most men have a strong sense of responsibility to provide for and protect their families. A man’s sense of self-worth is often tied to his ability to work and achieve. When fibromyalgia enters the picture and men can no longer work as long, as hard and as well as they once did, they often struggle with feelings of failure.
Many men are hesitant to reveal that they have FM because they fear it will affect their employer’s attitude toward them. Unfortunately, they are probably right. Society still expects men to push through the pain and not complain.
Bridging the Gender Gap
We’ve come a long way in educating the public and the medical profession about fibromyalgia. Now we need to teach them about men with fibromyalgia. Thus far every Lyrica commercial I’ve seen features a woman with FM. It’s time they show that men also have FM and can benefit from treatment.
I’d also like to encourage FM support groups to remember the men when they plan their meetings. While men are welcomed, the programs and discussions are often aimed at women because they are in the majority. When a man goes to a support group meeting, he frequently finds that he’s the only man there. Groups might consider planning and publicizing a meeting especially for men with FM.
Learning to Live with Fibromyalgia
Although these tips apply to both men and women, they are especially important for the men.
- If your self-worth has been dependent on your work, take a closer look at who you really are. Your strength of character is a far better gauge of your worth than just what you can physically do. (Read: You Are Not Your Illness)
- Don’t try to push through the pain. While it may seem noble and brave to do so, you will only make the fibromyalgia symptoms worse.
- Reevaluate your priorities. We tend to go through life doing what is expected of us. Now is the time to decide what is most important to you and use your limited energy to achieve those things.
- Figure out what your limits are - what you can/can’t do and how long you can do things. Then try to adjust your lifestyle to fit within those limits.
- Educate yourself and those close to you about fibromyalgia.
- Talk with other men who have fibromyalgia. If you don’t know of any men with FM in your area, try an online support group. There is a Web site devoted to men with FM that has forums and chat rooms where you can talk with other men who are going through the same things you are: Men with Fibromyalgia
- Take control of your life and your healthcare. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of feeling like a victim. You can take charge of your own attitude and manage your own healthcare. (Read Victim or Victor?)
Karen is the Co-Founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.