Fibromyalgia is an often-misunderstood form of rheumatoid disease. It’s usually classified alongside other forms of rheumatic disorders, such as arthritis, but the exact cause of fibromyalgia remains unknown.
Scientists estimate that fibromyalgia affects 5 million Americans age 18 or older. For unknown reasons, between 80 and 90 percent of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women While anyone can get fibromyalgia, hormones are thought to be a possible explanation for this gender bias; however, men and children also can be affected. Most people are diagnosed during middle age, although the symptoms often become present earlier in life.
How Can You Tell if You Have Fibromyalgia?
Your doctor will ask about your pain symptoms and then press on a series of anatomically-defined soft tissue body sites called “tender points.” There are 18 tender points on the body that will usually be highly sensitive to pressure in people with fibromyalgia as specified by the American College of Rheumatology criteria. People who do not have fibromyalgia are much less tender to pressure applied at these tender points.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases estimates that about five million adults in the United States have fibromyalgia. It can technically develop in anyone at any age, but fibromyalgia most typically develops in middle-aged adults. The disorder primarily occurs in women, so being female is a risk factor.
Other risk factors also increase the risk of developing fibromyalgia. These risk factors include:
- a personal or family history of fibromyalgia or other rheumatoid disease
- recurring injuries in the same part of the body
- anxiety or long-term stress
- neurological disorders
- going through a major physical event, such as a car accident
- history of serious infections
Having a history of any of the above factors doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop fibromyalgia. You should still be aware of these risks and discuss them with your doctor if you’re concerned.
1Lawrence RC, Felson DT, Helmick CG, Arnold LM, Choi H, Deyo RA, Gabriel S, Hirsch R, Hochberg MC, Hunder GG, Jordan JM, Katz JN, Kremers HM, Wolfe F; National Arthritis Data Workgroup. Estimates of the prevalence of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions in the United States. Part II. Arthritis Rheum. 2008 Jan;58(1):26-35.
People with certain rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (commonly called lupus), or ankylosing spondylitis (spinal arthritis) may be more likely to have fibromyalgia, too.
Several studies indicate that women who have a family member with fibromyalgia are more likely to have fibromyalgia themselves, but the exact reason for this—whether it is heredity, shared environmental factors, or both—is unknown. Researchers are trying to determine whether variations in certain genes cause some people to be more sensitive to stimuli, which lead to pain syndromes.