Fibromyalgia: Sore From Head to Toe

Did you know that fibromyalgia is more common than rheumatoid arthritis? Read on to know what causes it and how to deal with it

Man stretching body

We all experience sore muscles or pains and aches at some point or the other. But when the pain is consistent, severe enough to stop you from living a normal life, you may suffer from what is called the Fibromyalgia Syndrome [fibromyalgia for short]. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition of widespread pain and profound fatigue. ‘Fibro’ stands for fibrous tissues such as tendons and ligaments; ‘my’ indicates muscles; and ‘algia’ means pain. So, fibromyalgia is pain and fatigue in the muscles and fibrous tissues of our body.

Since fibromyalgia is recognised as a collection of symptoms rather than by one specific symptom or malfunction, it is a syndrome.

Key characteristics of Fibromyalgia

The most prominent feature of fibromyalgia is pain—a diffused aching or burning, often from head to toe. It may worsen at times and change location, usually becoming more severe in the most used parts of the body.

The fatigue ranges from simply feeling tired to feeling exhausted like in flu. The fatigue is not always constant; it may come and go and suddenly you feel drained of all energy—as if someone has just “pulled the plug”.

You will be surprised to know that fibromyalgia is a common illness. In fact, it is as common as rheumatoid arthritis and can even be more painful. With appropriate treatment, however, those with mild to moderate fibromyalgia can lead a normal life.

Fibromyalgia predominantly seems to affect women between the age 30 and 50. Although, increasing experience indicates that it can even affect males and individuals of all age groups.

Collection of symptoms

Besides pain and fatigue, fibromyalgia symptoms often include:

  • Poor quality of sleep; waking up tired and stiff
  • Headaches ranging from ordinary types to migraine
  • Irritable bowel—frequent diarrhoea or constipation, sometimes accompanied by gas in the abdomen or nausea
  • Cognitive disturbances including lack of concentration and word mix up
  • Clumsiness and dizziness
  • Sensitivity to changes in the weather and noise, bright lights, smoke and other environmental factors
  • Allergies.

What causes fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia often develops after some sort of a trauma, which seems to act as a trigger, such as a fall or a car accident, a viral infection, childbirth, an operation or an emotional event. Sometimes the condition begins without any obvious trigger. The actual cause of fibromyalgia is yet unknown, but over the last few years, research has produced some insights into this puzzling condition. For instance, we now know that most people with fibromyalgia are deprived of deep restorative sleep.

Research has identified a deficiency in serotonin in the central nervous system and a resulting imbalance of substance P, a spinal fluid that transmits pain signals. It is hoped that more research will help discover the exact cause for more effective treatment.

Making a diagnosis

Although fibromyalgia is not a new condition, for most of the last century, it was difficult to diagnose because of the difficulty in identifying it through standard laboratory tests or X-rays. Moreover, many of its signs and symptoms are common to other conditions—especially chronic fatigue syndrome [CFS].

The breakthrough came only in 1970, when two Canadian doctors developed a way of diagnosing fibromyalgia, a way that is now widely accepted. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed once other medical conditions are ruled out through tests and the patient’s history.

The patient also displays two main symptoms:

  • Widespread pain from head to toe for more than three months and
  • Pain in at least 11 out of 18 tender point sites when they are pressed.

‘Widespread pain’ means pain above and below the waist and on both sides of the body. The ‘tender points’, or spots of extreme tenderness, are rarely noticed by the patient until they are pressed.

Course of treatment

At present, treatment for fibromyalgia is symptomatic: it aims at reducing pain and improving sleep. In other words, the symptoms are treated rather than the condition itself. Medications most often prescribed for fibromyalgia are tricyclic drugs also used to treat depression—although doses for fibromyalgia are much lower than they are for depression. In some cases, these drugs ease pain as well as help the patient sleep.

Over-the-counter medications help relieve pain to some extent. Severe pain may require the expertise of a pain clinic. It is best to discuss any form of pain relief with your specialist or GP [general practioner]. Some people may require professional counselling to cope and take an active part in their own treatment.

Managing fibromyalgia

Learning to manage the condition seems, so far, the most successful way of dealing with fibromyalgia. A combination of heat therapy, rest, exercise and reducing stress can enable some people with fibromyalgia to maintain a productive life.

A number of alternative techniques are helpful in easing pain.

  • Relaxation is a technique that works well for almost everybody with fibromyalgia. It reduces tension in the mind and body. The results are calming for all the symptoms, particularly, the pain.
  • A hot water bottle and hot baths or showers, ease the pain and morning stiffness. Soaking hands and feet in hot water can diminish the ache.
  • No particular diet directly helps patients with fibromyalgia. It is best, however, to avoid or at least cut down on your coffee, tea and alcohol intake. Some sufferers have a tendency to gain weight and this can be distressing in itself. Following a diet with protein, vitamins and minerals helps to control your weight and build strength.
  • Family and friends can help the person deal with fibromyalgia by learning as much as possible about the condition. Discussing problems and working together can make big a difference.

The life of a person with fibromyalgia is a combination of good days and bad days. On a good day, it is important to pace yourself and rest; overdoing may simply make matters worse. Listen to your body when it tells you to slow down.

Exercise options

By Mark Pellegrino, MD

girl stretchingIndividuals with fibromyalgia are faced with an exercise dilemma. Because the muscles are tight and painful, they often aggravate by any attempt to exercise. On the other hand, if muscles aren’t used enough, they can easily flare up with activity. Often, the person with fibromyalgia will experience increased pain or full-blown flare up when attempting to increase activity. Stretching and a light conditioning programme are two components of exercise that when used in combination, work best for patients.


Stretching as a form of exercise is readily available wherever we are. Because fibromyalgia muscles are tight, they are more vulnerable to sprains and strains. Hence, it is important that this tightness is counteracted by stretching. You can stretch in bed, in the shower, at work, at home and just about anywhere. It is a vital part of the person’s home programme and should be done regularly.

Light conditioning

A light conditioning programme means enough exercise to stimulate the cardiovascular system and strengthen the muscles without overworking or exhausting them and increasing pain. Light conditioning does not mean intense aerobic activity but involves stretching, strengthening, relaxation and conditioning of muscles. A good warm up, proper breathing techniques, correct postures, cooling down and awareness of the body’s response to exercise some of its components.

Light conditioning exercises include walking, cycling, aquatics, dancing and low-impact aerobics. As a rule, try to perform light conditioning exercises at least three times a week for 20-30 minutes. Starting this programme until you are comfortable with a regular daily stretching programme is not recommended.

(Mark Pellegrino, MD, is uniquely qualified to help patients with fibromyalgia. Dr Pellegrino is Board Certified in Physical medicine and Rehabilitation. He is the author of Inside Fibromyalgia.)

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Kim Lawson
Dr Kim Lawson, BTech [Hons], PhD, is a research pharmacologist with an international reputation in Drug Discovery Research. He is on the editorial board of Myalgies International and is a member of the Medical Advisory Boards to the Fibromyalgia Association UK, to FibroAction, to Polkadotgals, to the European Network of Fibromyalgia Associations and to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fibromyalgia [Houses of Parliament, Westminster].


  1. I’m 66 and for many years I had bouts my legs weak, shake & pain. Each time which was 2.5-3 years went to ERs, Neurologist & many never did get a diagnosis. This time over a year start right leg, hip, lower back to left did same. Then upper back, neck, shoulders, both arms , fingers & toes.
    3 months ago not only every muscle literally within 2-3 weeks every joint past couple weeks make noises. Through the years I recall many Drs
    Chiropractor, etc told me I had severe Fibromyalgia. Never took serious nor told to do anything. Pain excruciating 24/7 no relief. Read alot can be depression, etc. I do not have any like that. Very bitter my Drs know the depth of my pain and no help. OTC many many things tried and need opiates to have quality of life. Therapy all turned down pain so severe can’t touch me.
    I need help thoughts suggestions Neurologist says mine most severe he has seen. I’m home bound & hate it.

  2. I have had a thyroidectomy of the thyroid and parathyroid glands and I can say within 2 weeks I had full blown fibro. I am sick of the Drs thinking depression meds and tylenol even comes CLOSE to helping, it does NOT. Haven’t you heard that tylenol and ibuprofen are dangerous to the bodies liver and kidneys etc. But they are too afraid to give real pain meds which is the only side effect of this dis-ease that is debilitating for most. I haven’t been able to work a job or have a normal active life because of the PAIN and Drs are too scared now to treat PAIN and it’s frustrating. Many are buying street drugs or committing self inflicted death because the pain is out of control. I have something to say…

    Dear Drs. I am a full grown adult and should be able to choose; after being made aware the risks of pain medication, if I want to go that route. YOU shouldn’t get that choice. YOU are the HIRED help! I would rather live my life on pain meds and ve avle to function like a normal person than to live my life ACHING and BURNING in a damn chair! Yes I’m angry at the ignorance of it all. Only a person living in pain should be able to decide what helps that “symptom” you say they only treat symptoms? Ok well that is the MAIN symptom being purposefully over looked and belittled. It’s outrageous our kids find fentenyl in the streets and the sick can’t find a percocet. Absolutely outraged.

  3. I am totally convicted I have Fibromyalgia and I have been putting up with for 4 years , I take vitamins and supplements and my primary care doctor has only proscribed Acetaminophen , I have to take at least 2000 mg to even do anything dearing the day and again at night only if my doctor understood how much pain I am in , is there a better pain relief that would help me more , I am in a lot of pain , every day and every night , please help me , THANK YOU so you are not understanding either , why not ?,

  4. I am totally convicted I have Fibromyalgia and I have been putting up with for 4 years , I take vitamins and supplements and my primary care doctor has only proscribed Acetaminophen , I have to take at least 2000 mg to even do anything dearing the day and again at night only if my doctor understood how much pain I am in , is there a better pain relief that would help me more , I am in a lot of pain , every day and every night , please help me , THANK YOU

  5. I have it and I agree. I blamed it on the thyroid not being fight and tried every thyroid med. I still have it. I had at least 4 very traumatic things happen to me in the past 10 years. I have had this I believe since Grave’s disease started after my mom died. God bless you all that have it and those trying to help. I am allergic to a lot of medicines that would help. Vicki Nielsen

  6. Like Dr Sonia I too became aware of this condition after reading same article. Infact I came across acopy of this magazine only very recently. I have been reading books on self improvement , philosophy & related books for over 20 yrs.But, this journal is wonderful & very informative. I congrat & thank Mr Khatri for launching this unique medium to educate public about very vital topics in our lives. Reg Fibromyalgia I would like to advise yogic exercises & taking Homeopathic medicines.Light massage with oil such as coconut oil would also help .More later. Thking u sachdeva

  7. I would like to thank you for your article on fibromyalgia,i have been suffering from it for past 3years and it was very difficult for the doctors to come to this diagnosis.I had to get loads of tests done,though i am myself a doctor(radiologist).Most of the senior doctors called it dustbin diagnosis.
    I am grateful that this was discussed.Once I have come in terms with the condition my life has become easier.I am glad for this article,when my husband read it,he could understand my symptoms better.
    I wanted to know which vitamin?mineral supplement should i take to improve myself and is it a completly curable condition.
    Thanking you


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