It’s not easy to spot fibromyalgia. This is one disease that doesn’t have many visible signs. Most symptoms of fibromyalgia — including pain, muscle tenderness, and fatigue — are hard to see.
It can be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis and find the treatment you need because fibromyalgia symptoms are similar to those of other diseases. Although fibromyalgia isn’t fatal, it can have serious, lifelong effects.
“Tender points” on the body are one hallmark of fibromyalgia. When you press on these spots, they feel sore. Tender points can be located on the back of the head, elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips. There are 18 possible tender points in all. You may have discomfort in some or all of these locations. Doctors use tender points to help diagnose fibromyalgia.
Tender points of fibromyalgia. Image source: Illustrated by Diego Sabogal
Pain is another constant presence in fibromyalgia. The pain feels as though it’s starting in the muscles, but there are no signs of damage to the tissues. People with fibromyalgia may be more sensitive than usual to stimuli that cause pain or to the feeling of pain. The discomfort is usually all over the body, and it can be made worse by many factors, including a lack of sleep and stress.
When you’re in pain, it’s harder to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Plus, people with fibromyalgia are more likely to have conditions that interrupt sleep, such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. Even when you can sleep, you get less of the deep, REM sleep that helps your body restore itself. Long nights spent lying awake or tossing and turning can lead to morning fatigue.
Fibromyalgia pain isn’t the only part of this disease that can steal sleep. Many people with fibromyalgia complain of a creeping, crawling feeling in their legs at night. The feeling is so uncomfortable that it makes you want to move, which wakes you out of a deep slumber. The resulting lack of sleep can have a real impact on your ability to function the next day.
Between 50 and 70 percent of people with fibromyalgia get headaches, according to The American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association. Migraines are the most common type of headache in people with fibromyalgia. During a migraine your head throbs, and you may feel sick to your stomach and throw up. Some people are so sensitive to light and sound during a migraine that they have to turn out all the lights and lie down in a darkened room until their headache goes away.
Some people with fibromyalgia also have a condition called temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ). TMJ causes pain in the jaw area. If you have this condition, you’ll notice that your jaw makes snapping or popping noises when you open and close your mouth. You may also have trouble opening your mouth all the way to chew or speak. Sometimes TMJ also causes headaches and pain around the ears.
Do you ever feel as though you can’t clear your head? Confusion, trouble concentrating, and difficulty remembering are all signs of “fibro fog,” which was named for the foggy feeling people with fibromyalgia sometimes have. What causes fibro fog isn’t clear, but it may have to do with the effects of pain on the brain or a lack of oxygen to the brain’s tissues.
When you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), knowing the location of the nearest bathroom becomes a serious concern. IBS affects the large intestine and can unexpectedly cause:
The condition is more common in people with fibromyalgia, and it can have a serious effect on your everyday life if you don’t get treated.
When you have fibromyalgia, the world is a noisy, bright, and painful place. Fibromyalgia makes you more sensitive to sounds, light, and touch. So the slightest pressure on your skin can make you yelp in pain, and you may feel the urge to cover your ears in loud situations, like concerts. Some people are also sensitive to changes in temperature.