Fibromyalgia: Having The Guts To Go On

By Susan Pruitt
Senior Editor

tv_opedMONTICELLO-“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.” -Arnold Schwartzenegger

   In 2004, I awoke from a nap with my then one-year-old daughter. She lay cradled in my arms as I sat in the recliner. My two boys lay on pallets in the floor I made from several folded quilts placed on top of one another. This day, I opened my eyes for a brief second and then immediately screamed out. My spine felt as if it were being forcefully yanked out of my body. I arched my back, and the pain radiated up to base of my skull, giving me the worst headache of my life. After this episode, the pain only appeared when I started to get an illness. Every time I went to the doctor’s office, the doctor would sit on his stool completely perplexed at the odd symptoms I was experiencing.

   Last year, on a warm, humid summer morning, I did what most people do upon awakening. I yawned, stretched and wiped the sleep from my eyes.  As usual, I pulled back the sheets and attempted to pull myself up to a sitting position … when BAM! Burning pain shot up my spine from my tailbone, and my legs felt like they had been weighed down with concrete. I grabbed my back and tried to rub it when electrical pulses zapped everywhere through the skin of my entire body. I tried to get up from the bed only to helplessly topple back down. I even felt disoriented as the room swirled in various conglomerations. Noises sounded louder than usual  and my face became somewhat numb. Terrified, I began to sob uncontrollably. I thought I had suffered from a stroke.

   After several steroid injections in my near my spine, X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, physical therapy, several medications and finally a referral to a neurologist, I found I had been and am still suffering from a mysterious condition known as fibromyalgia. I had watched a commercial about Cymbalta and thought “I can’t have fibromyalgia! Those people just have simple aches and pains! Everyone my age has that!” I expressed my doubts to the doctor. He explained, not very thoroughly, some of the symptoms, and that I would be dealing with this excruciating pain for the rest of my life.  I actually had to research fibromyalgia on the Internet and join an online support group to get the answers I desperately needed to understand the disorder.

Understanding Fibromyalgia

   According to WebMd.com, fibromyalgia affects the soft tissue and muscles. Fibromyalgia symptoms include chronic pain in the muscles, fatigue, sleep problems, and painful trigger points at certain parts of the body. Fibromyalgia can also lead to depression and social isolation.

   Researchers are currently exploring hormonal disturbances and chemical imbalances that affect nerve signaling. Some doctors believe fibromyalgia is caused by stress, illness or trauma. Still others believe there is a hereditary factor. Most researchers believe fibromyalgia results from not a single event, but from a combination of many physical and emotional stressors.

   Some have speculated that lower levels of a brain neurotransmitter called serotonin leads to lowered pain thresholds or an increased sensitivity to pain. The lowered pain thresholds in fibromyalgia patients may be caused by the reduced effectiveness of the body’s natural endorphin painkillers and the increased presence of a chemical called “substance P.” Substance P amplifies pain signals. For me, pain can come from the wind simply blowing against my skin!

   Most fibromyalgia patients experience insomnia, which might lead to lower levels of serotonin causing more sensitivity to pain. Fibromyalgia patients not only experience pain and insomnia, but many other symptoms, which include:

  • Itchy/ burning skin
  • Balance problems
  • Digestive disorders
  • Headaches/ migraines
  • Brain fog
  • Muscle knots, cramping, weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Morning stiffness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Skin sensitivity
  • Speech difficulties
  • Temperomandibular Joint pain (jaw stiffness and pain)

   Since there is no known diagnostic test or cure for fibromyalgia, many patients’ symptoms are often discredited as linked to a psychological problem. Some people attribute fibromyalgia as drug companies’ way of making more money while others think fibromyalgia is caused by relationship problems and harmful intestinal bacteria.

Is Fibromyalgia Real?

   The answer is that is that it depends on who you ask. Some doctors, such as rheumatologist Anthony Russell, believe that fibromyalgia does not rise to the level of a discrete, measurable, observable disease, instead preferring to view it as a social disorder that is determined by societal, historical and other factors and contexts. Rheumatologist Fred Wolfe also believes fibromyalgia is not a disease, but a set of symptoms.

   “We’ve taken stress, psychosocial distress and pain and the ordinary life experiences some people have and turned them into something they’re not — a physical illness,” Wolfe said.

   Not long ago, doctors called those with fibromyalgia pain as being hypochondriacs. A new brain scan study concludes that fibromyalgia is related to abnormalities of blood flow in the brain.

   For this study, researchers took brain scans on 20 women with fibromyalgia and 10 women without the condition. Participants also answered questions to assess measures of pain, disability, anxiety and depression. An increase in blood flow was found in areas of the brain involved in sensing pain and a decrease was found within an area thought to be involved in emotional responses to pain.

   For me, I know the pain is real. I lay on the couch in pure agony for approximately six months before my neurologist prescribed Lyrica for the pain. While Lyrica significantly helps the symptoms of fibromyalgia, it also causes strange side effects.

Treatment for Fibromyalgia

   According to FDA.gov, medications for fibromyalgia consist of pain medications, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, sleep medication, Cymbalta and Lyrica.

   Cymbalta, an antidepressant, was previously approved for depression, anxiety and diabetic neuropathy. Cymbalta’s side effects include nausea, dry mouth, sleepiness, constipation, decreased appetite and increased sweating.  I, personally, suffer from almost none of these side effects. However, Lyrica is another story all together.

   Lyrica was previously approved to treat seizures, as well as pain from damaged nerves that can happen in people with diabetes and in those who develop pain following the rash of shingles. Side effects of Lyrica including sleepiness, dizziness, blurry vision, weight gain, trouble concentrating, swelling of the hands and feet and dry mouth. With this medication, I suffer from all of the side effects. My main concern lies with weight gain. I have probably gained approximately 10 to 15 pounds while taking Lyrica. But, it helps with the pain, and there are no other known medications to treat fibromyalgia since doctors cannot figure out what causes the disorder.

   Some fibromyalgia sufferers rely on dietary supplements to aid in pain relief. Supplements include SAMe, 5Htp, Magnesium, Melatonin and Omega 3 fatty acids. Still, others try massage therapy, relaxation techniques, exercise, the elimination of caffeine and alcohol and the elimination of processed foods from their diets.

   I know I must deal with pain and stiffness everyday for the rest of my life. But, between the choices of lying around feeling sorry for myself or getting up and enjoying my day, I pick the latter.

   For more information about fibromyalgia, please visit http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fibromyalgia/DS00079

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