Guide to Fibromyalgia—with Ways to Help Yourself Manage & Cope

Young beautiful woman with depression

Fibromyalgia remains an elusive condition. It is a syndrome rather than a disease. Unlike a disease, which is a medical condition with a specific cause or causes and recognisable signs and symptoms, a syndrome is a collection of signs, symptoms, and medical problems that tend to occur together but are not related to a specific, identifiable cause.

Whether you have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, suffer from its symptoms or have a family member or friend with the disorder, this section is designed to provide you with a better understanding of this chronic pain disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. This page focuses first on the symptoms, then on natural ways to help yourself manage and cope.

Fibromyalgia Symptoms

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Pain all over is the most common symptom of fibromyalgia, but this syndrome causes many others. Chances are you feel exhausted and your ability to think or find the right word is impaired (a symptom called fibro fog). You probably have trouble sleeping and when you wake up, you are stiff and achy.

Your wide range of symptoms can be debilitating. You can feel utterly awful but test results generally suggest you are healthy (some doctors do use a tender point exam). However, that has more to do with the inefficiency of the right tests, given the increasing knowledge that this is a neurological condition.

Alongside widespread pain, muscles are tight and knotted. They hurt to touch and radiate pain to other areas. These firm knots are myofascial trigger points. They overlap substantially with the tender points used for diagnosis, and the more you have, the worse your overall fibromyalgia pain. Trigger points tend to occur in muscles that are used the most, and this may explain why you hurt more in your neck, shoulders, low back, hips, and forearms.

Between symptoms of pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping and fibro fog, you probably feel as though you have to push yourself to get anything done. Your skin may feel like it’s burnt, and your muscles can cramp, spasm, and twitch. From that lingering stiffness that feels like you’ve been hit by a truck, to spontaneous burning type pains, muscle spasms to overall aches, people with fibromyalgia often describe their symptoms as a flu-like infection that just doesn’t go away.

Fibromyalgia Pain

The pain experienced in fibromyalgia comes more from the brain and spinal cord than the locations where their bodies feel the pain. “Because pain pathways throughout the body are amplified in fibromyalgia patients, pain can occur anywhere, so chronic headaches, visceral pain and sensory hyper-responsiveness are common in people with this painful condition,” says Daniel Clauw, M.D., who believes that fibromyalgia may be related to how the brain processes pain signals.

Although fibro has no cure and is a chronic pain disorder, there is hope. Many patients have successfully reduced many symptoms through mindful and careful management. Of course there may always be flares but minimsing their occurance is key in coping with every chronic condition and fibro is no different. The goal is to live well despite having the condition by reducing symptoms and reducing the impact that the condition has on your day-to-day living.

Central Sensitization

young woman with severe headache

As fibromyalgia is frequently a diagnosis of exclusion, that is all other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are first be ruled out. For this reason, some believe fibromyalgia to be referred to pejoratively as ‘a wastebasket’ diagnosis.

Fibromyalgia is a condition of the nervous system, which becomes stuck in a state of high reactivity. Central sensitivity involves multiple changes to the nervous system, including the brain, which leads to maladaptive neuroplasticity.

Many pain specialists believe that unless there is central sensitization, the patient does not have the condition. This is echoed by the increasing consensus among medical practitioners that it is not only a real condition but a disorder of the CNS, creating central sensitization.

To read more on this and central sensitization, visit: Fibromyalgia Treatment|Fibromyalgia Pain Treatment.

The Most Common Symptoms

Fibromyalgia causes so many symptoms, you may feel like a hypochondriac. In addition to the invisible nature of your condition, there is tremendous variability between one patient’s symptoms and another. This situation causes physicians to be perplexed and patients to be frustrated.

Although lab tests may reveal nothing, fibromyalgia can still be diagnosed by a physical exam that looks for the presence of 18 tender points. These regions usually contain a knotted muscle (i.e., a trigger point), which is why pressing on these areas confirms for your doctor your pain is everywhere.

Not every pain specialist agrees with this method of diagnosis. However, every patient will find that they do have these tender points. Tender points are pain points or localized areas of tenderness around joints, but not the joints themselves. These tender points hurt when pressed with a finger.

Tender points are often not deep areas of pain. Instead, they are superficial areas seemingly under the surface of the skin; The actual size of the point of most tenderness is usually very small, about the size of a penny. These areas are much more sensitive than other nearby areas.

Young woman holding hand on her neck. Neck pain concept

Pressure on one of the tender points with a finger will cause enough pain make the person flinch or pull back. Tender points are scattered over the neck, back, chest, elbows, hips, buttocks, and knees. Your doctor can test the painful tender points during an examination.Yet even with tender points, you need to tell your doctor about the exact pain you feel in those areas.

You also need to tell the doctor about your other fibromyalgia symptoms, such as deep muscle pain, fatigue, poor concentration, IBS, sleep problems, blurred vision, restless legs etc. Symptoms are chronic but may fluctuate throughout the day. Roughly one-quarter of people with fibromyalgia are work-disabled.

Top Ten Symptoms:

  • Mild to severe body-wide pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Brain fog
  • Morning stiffness
  • Muscle knots, cramping and/or weakness
  • Digestive disorders
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Balance problems
  • Itchy/burning skin

Other Symptoms of Fibromyalgia Include:

  • Chest pain unrelated to the heart.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nasal congestion
  • Painful periods
  • Palpitations
  • Irritable bladder/interstitial cystitis
  • Profuse sweating
  • Tingling/numbness sensations
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Vulvodynia (vulvar pain)
  • Difficulty focusing eyes
  • The feeling of swollen extremities
  • Dry/burning eyes and mouth

Other Symptoms

Many symptoms associated with fibromyalgia may not be as common, but can greatly aggravate how you feel. They can come and go, or change without reason. Some of these baffling symptoms could be related to other illnesses, so always check with your doctor before assuming they are part of your fibromyalgia. Several factors can make your fibromyalgia worse, and certain preventive measures may help minimize the impact they have on you.

Factors that Aggravate Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia patients are often sensitive to odours, loud noises, bright lights, some foods, and prescription medications. Situations that Make Fibromyalgia Worse Weather (especially cold climates and changes in barometric pressure), cold or drafty environments, sensory overload (eg noises, bright lights, hectic activity, crowds etc), hormonal fluctuations (premenstrual and menopausal states), poor quality sleep, stress, depression, anxiety, and over-exertion can all contribute to fibromyalgia symptom flare-ups.

Ways to Help Yourself Manage & Cope

If you have fibromyalgia, you know that life can feel at least 10 times harder and more complicated than before the complex chronic pain condition began. It affects every part of your day – you’re tired, sore all over and can’t think straight.

What’s worse is that every symptom – from brain fog to pain, fatigue and depression – hurts not only yourself but also your relationships, work life and physical, emotional and mental health. There is such a vast variation in intensity with some patients being intermittently affected, while others debilitated, frequently housebound, sometimes even bedridden.

So how can you cope? From exercising to herbs and supplements, here are some of the many ways to help ease your day to day symptoms.
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Stretching can benefit almost everyone but it is particularly important for fibromyalgia patients, who often feel stiffness and restless leg syndrome. Stretching is one of the finest forms of exercise for fibromyalgia. It is gentle (or must be done gently) and even if you have a lot of deconditioning, is a perfect way to both relive tension, strengthen your muscles and lessen some of the pain.

Always start off slowly, especially if you have been sedentary for some time. Breathe deeply into the stretches and never go past your limitations. It should not hurt more, if it does, lessen the stretch. For some examples, I will be adding a post on how to do a routine.

If you need some reasons to stretch to get you motivated, here are some of the many benefits of basic stretches:

  • Stretches help to elongate your muscles, helping to release stiffness and pain.
  • Simple stretching increases your flexibility, allowing you to get the full range of motion in all of your joints. This will help with your daily activity levels as well as reduce your pain.
  • Stretching will provide you with time used specifically for relaxing.
  • If you suffer from insomnia, a daily stretching routine may help you to fall asleep faster and wake up less during the night.

Though stretching may initially be difficult and painful for those suffering with fibromyalgia, it is an excellent way to increase muscle strength while decreasing pain. When you are stretching, keep these tips in mind so that you always have a fun, enjoyable and safe experience:

  • Warm up before you start stretching. Take a bath or shower to warm your muscles or a gentle walk, if physically possible.
  • Start your stretching routine slowly. Begin with one repetition of each exercise, and gradually work up to more, using your body as a guide.
  • While you stretch, focus on your breathing. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and breathe out through your mouth.
  • Never hold a stretch to the point of pain. Good stretches only go to the point where you feel some resistance in your muscles.
  • If you are particularly stiff, try stretching in warm water. The warm water will help to relax your muscles, making the stretch less painful to hold.
  • If a certain muscle is sore, prevent injury by doing just one repetition of that stretch, or hold the stretch for a shorter amount of time. Never stretch an injured part of the body.
  • If you are having trouble holding your stretches, use an exercise band to help you and breathe into the stretch.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Autumnal Still Life With Fruit And Leaves On A Wooden Base

While no magic food will prevent every patient’s flare-ups, a few dietary improvements can make a world of difference and may even help alleviate many symptoms. With fibromyalgia, one of the most important things is to improve your overall health and well-being.

Find out which foods can offer relief and which should be banned from your table. Eating as natural food as possible is vital. Fruit and vegetables are typically low in calories, high in fibre, and rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant chemicals with astonishing disease-fighting properties).

Eating them helps reduce obesity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and autoimmune disorders; all common among fibromyalgia patients. In addition, natural foods lack the additives that can aggravate symptoms. Preservatives and colouring tend to have a negative effect on a person with fibromyalgia.

Omega-3s are imperative for fibromyalgia sufferers. The “good fat” found in cold-water fish and walnuts is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, while the oil lubricates your joints, maintains heart health and can even reduce brain fog by directly nourishing the brain cells.

Enjoy protein with every meal to keep your blood sugar from fluctuating, thus increasing fatigue. Some experts say the tissue abnormalities that can go along with fibromyalgia may get worse or may even be caused by inadequate protein. Additionally, they say eating enough protein can help relieve stiffness and pain.

You may be interested to learn that what you eat can have a positive impact on nerve pain because your nervous system relies heavily on the nutrients that you consume to maintain its health, and particularly on the B group of vitamins, vitamin E and omega oils.

Foods that are rich in B vitamins include chicken and vegetables, yeast extract (like Marmite), nuts, fortified and wholemeal breakfast cereals and dairy produce.

Vintage fruit and vegetables

When it comes to dairy produce, go for such lower-fat options as only a little butter, semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt, Parmesan, Gouda and Edam rather than lots of their full-fat, creamy counterparts because saturated animal fats can reduce the potential benefits of taking omega oils.

You can obtain vitamin E from vegetables and vegetable oils (especially wheat-germ and sunflower oil), seeds, nuts (particularly hazelnuts, almonds and peanuts), avocados and whole grains.

Foods to avoid

Some people with fibromyalgia and ME or CFS find that certain foods make their symptoms worse. To see how they affect you, try eliminating them from your diet for several days. Then gradually reintroduce one food at a time (with a few days in between) and see how it makes you feel. The most common symptom triggers are:

  • High-calorie foods
  • Fried foods or those with high saturated fats
  • Simple carbs such as white bread
  • Refined sugar
  • Preservatives and colouring
  • Aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Reduce your caffeine intake to no more than two cups a day
Happy Yoga Woman

Do Gentle Movement

One of the most important things any fibromyalgia sufferer can do is to move their body, no matter how hard this may be due to other symptoms. Do listen to your body but know that your pain can increase when sedentary. Movement is critical to maintaining joint mobility and minimizing muscle stiffness but it doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise, which may even worsen your pain if too intense for you, not to mention painful to do.

Though even gentle movement can initially be a monumental task for those suffering the symptoms of fibromyalgia but bearing up under the discomfort has massive benefits. Mindful movement – whatever you can manage on a routine basis – can boost mood, ease pain, improve sleep, reduce fatigue, improve circulation and strengthen your heart.

Be careful: Sometimes exercise can be counterproductive. Many patients are so fatigued, that it makes it difficult to exercise. Build up gradually, if possible with the help of a pain management specialist. Know your limit and consult your doctor before starting or changing an exercise program.

Beneficial exercises include low impact aerobic activities such as walking, water aerobics, swimming and yoga, which has specifically been shown to help fibromyalgia patients. Tai Chi is another form of gentle exercise that keeps the energy flowing and your body gently moving. A small study found that tai chi may help people who have fibromyalgia; they had less pain, slept better, and were able to exercise more and be more active.

Remember to stretch properly before attempting any exercise activity. Take small steps toward becoming more active as your symptoms begin to improve; begin by gently increasing your activity levels.

Have a Routine for Sleep

Beautiful Caucasian woman waking up in the morning.

Fatigue and fibromyalgia go hand in hand, which is why a good sleeping routine is even more important. Although sleep may be elusive or erratic, there are huge benefits in having a plan and sticking to it.

Talk to your doctor to see whether sleep medication is appropriate for you (to review it if you’re finding insomnia to be debilitating), or try natural alternatives, such as melatonin, valerian, and passionflower.

Trying to implement good sleep habits is paramount. Follow these tips for [hopefully] more restful slumber:

  • Start winding down from the day a couple of hours before you want to sleep by taking a relaxing, dead sea salt and lavender bath for example.
  • Make sure your bedroom is comfortable by reducing noises and extreme temperatures.
  • Stay away from fatty, spicy foods that may upset your stomach or cause heartburn.
  • Avoid too much stimulus before bed time, switch off the violent film and read a calming book for example.
  • Ensure your bed linen is light, comfortable and changed regularly; also make sure that the bed is no more than eight years old.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends.

Complementary Therapies to Help Fibromyalgia

A variety of other treatments have been used for conditions that cause chronic pain. Most of these complementary or alternative therapies are not proven treatments for fibromyalgia. Safe complementary therapies such as acupuncture or massage, for instance, may help relieve stress, ease muscle tension, and help you feel better and healthier. Treatments that have been shown to help people who have fibromyalgia include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of counselling, including hypnotherapy
  • ACT – the new wave of CBT
  • Biofeedback
  • Acupuncture
  • Gentle Massage therapy, particularly myofascial release
  • Relaxation techniques such as meditation or mindfulness
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Reflexology
  • Aromatherapy
  • Reiki and healing
  • Restorative/Remedial yoga
  • Watsu Aqua Therapy
  • Hydrotherapy

Although fibro has no cure and is a chronic pain disorder, there is hope. Many patients have successfully reduced many symptoms through mindful and careful management. Of course there may always be flares but minimsing their occurance is key in coping with every chronic condition and fibro is no different. The goal is to live well despite having the condition by reducing symptoms and reducing the impact that the condition has on your day-to-day living.

Visit the following articles to help you manage and cope with fibromyalgia:

Pacing for Pain Management

Pain Management


How to Use Pain Psychology Techniques to Reduce Anxiety, Depression, Anger and Guilt

Natural Pain-Relief and Coping Techniques for Severe Pain

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Gentle hugs x