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What is fibromyalgia?

The word "fibromyalgia" means pain in the muscles and tissues that connect bones, ligaments and tendons. Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes pain, aching, stiffness, fatigue and tenderness, especially in the neck, back, shoulders and hips. Persons with fibromyalgia often experience sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, headaches and gastrointestinal problems. While there is no known cure for fibromyalgia, it is not life-threatening and does not cause deformity or damage to the tissues. It can be successfully managed in many cases.

What causes it?

The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. Factors that may contribute to its development include emotional stress, injury or trauma (especially to the neck or upper body), changes in the way muscles work (such as decreased blood flow in the tissues), changes in brain nerve chemical (serotonin) levels and family history of fibromyalgia. Researchers also suspect that infections may play a role, although there is no definite proof.

Who is at risk?

Fibromyalgia is a common disease that affects approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population or about 5 million people. It mainly affects women, especially those between the ages of 35 and 55. However, it also may affect men, children and the elderly.

In some families, inherited factors play a role in a person’s risk for developing arthritis. If a parent or other close relative has been diagnosed with arthritis, it is important to share this history with a health care provider. Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to successful management of arthritis.

Can it be prevented?

Because its causes remain unknown, there is currently no way to prevent fibromyalgia.

How is it diagnosed?

Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose. It does not cause inflammation and cannot be diagnosed with X-rays, blood tests or samples of muscle tissue. The diagnosis is based on patient history and examination by a doctor. Blood tests are often done to rule out other causes for a patient's symptoms. According to the American College of Rheumatology guidelines, a person has fibromyalgia if he or she has widespread pain for at least three months and pain in at least 11 of 18 specific tender points on the body. Referral to a rheumatologist (arthritis doctor) may be necessary.

How is it treated?

There is no known cure for fibromyalgia. Studies have shown that exercise, including those related to flexibility, aerobics and stretching, may help to reduce muscle pain and tenderness and give an improved sense of well-being. Medications to lessen pain, relax muscles and improve sleep often are used to treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Other treatments include heat, massage, relaxation and stress management.

Successful management of fibromyalgia includes self-management. It is important for patients to learn about their disease and take part in their own care. Working with health care professionals allows a person to share in decision-making and gain a sense of control.

Self-management includes arthritis education, exercise programs, relaxation and stress management, eating well-balanced meals and maintaining proper weight, taking care of joints and using assistive devices to rest joints and relieve pressure.

  • Exercise can help increase independence, improve mood, decrease pain, increase flexibility, improve blood flow, maintain proper weight and promote general physical fitness. Exercise in a warm water pool is an excellent choice. Physical/occupational therapy can help restore joint movement and increase strength. A therapist can help design an exercise program to meet a person's specific needs.
  • Rest also is important. Fibromyalgia may cause tiredness and muscle weakness. A rest or short nap that does not interfere with nighttime sleep may help. Relaxation techniques can be useful in controlling pain. Some people find stress reduction and biofeedback helpful.
  • Assistive devices can be used to reduce stress on certain joints. For example, braces or canes may help reduce stress on the knees. Jar grippers or other gadgets may help reduce stress on the small joints of the hands.

Research shows that patients who take part in their own care report less pain and make fewer visits to health care professionals, as well as enjoy a better quality of life.

When should a person get help?

When pain or extreme tiredness interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep or perform normal activities of daily living, a health care professional should be contacted. Learning pain control and ways to handle stress often requires help from health professionals.