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Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Overview of the Chronic Condition

Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Overview of the Chronic Condition

Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) is a chronic, painful, and sometimes disabling condition. The pathophysiology of FMS implicates a lot about fibromyalgia treatment. If you want to know more about what fibromyalgia is and what causes fibromyalgia, read on.

Here's a Must-Read Overview of Fibromyalgia Syndrome: What Is Fibromyalgia?

1. Understanding Fibromyalgia Syndrome!

The pathophysiologic mechanisms of Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) involve the central nervous system (CNS). Although, a peripheral source of nociception may perpetuate this sensitization. Thus, drugs that act through the CNS like tricyclic agents, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs], and tramadol are more effective than those that act at the periphery. NSAIDs are an example of the latter. The concept explains why hypnotherapy or meditation may be beneficial in Fibromyalgia syndrome.

Understanding pathophysiologic mechanisms, as discussed in our article on September 1, 2003, issue 1, is important for treating disease. Although the mechanisms in Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) are not fully understood, the relevant factors for treatment purposes include central sensitization. These are amplified poor sleep, psychological distress, and peripheral pain generators. Examples of the latter include overuse of body parts, repetitive trauma, and arthritis. Deconditioning and aggravating factors like weather, noise, and comorbid conditions also affect this.

The management of Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) has been reviewed in detail. Key components of treatment are shown in Table 1. [See the original article.] We will describe each of these below.

2. Positive and Empathetic Attitude of the Physician!

The management of Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) begins with the first contact with the patient. Many patients with aches and pains have had unpleasant experiences with their previous health care providers. They may have heard of such experiences from their friends, too. Greeting a patient in a friendly and positive manner goes a long way. It assures that you are a kind and interested physician. Maintain a caring attitude throughout the period of consultation and next follow-ups.

3. How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

As emphasized in our previous article, Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) is characterized by widespread pain and multiple tender points. It is not diagnosed by “ruling out” other conditions, as stated in the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria. Ordering one more test to exclude such disease may cause anxiety. Such an approach is not only unnecessary but may also indicate uncertainty on the part of the physician. Thus, it may erode a patient’s confidence.

4. Patient Education, Reassurance, and Individualization of Treatment!

Patient Education, Reassurance, and Individualization of Treatment | Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Overview of the Chronic Condition


After the diagnosis is made, patient education is the most important step. Provide information to patients with Fibromyalgia syndrome, in an understandable way. Include information about diagnosis and probable cause, aggravating factors (Table 2), and prognosis. Then, use Table 1 to discuss various elements of management. Emphasize that a patient’s pain and other symptoms are “real” and based on a “chemical imbalance.” The latter may include excessive substance P and decreased serotonin.

Reassure your patient that Fibromyalgia syndrome is not life-threatening (despite much pain). It does not cause tissue damage. (We avoid using the term “benign” because patients who are suffering may resent it.) Speak of general healthy behavior. Teach about weight loss, smoking cessation, good sleep habits, and regular exercise. Also, emphasize the need for both non-pharmacologic and pharmacologic therapy. A recent study has found an association between overweight and several FMS features. It outlined fatigue, decreased physical function, and an increased number of tender points. Smoking is associated with pain, global severity, and functional difficulties.

Tailor your management according to each patient’s symptom profile. Some patients may have significant psychological distress. Others have a predominant sleep problem. Others have specific aggravating factors like poor sleep, repetitive trauma (vocational and recreational), and mental stress. Some patients cope with their symptoms well, while others do not. Although Fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic condition, most patients find relief with treatment for a period of time. During this time, they can be functional.

5. Addressing Aggravating Factors!

Aggravating factors that should be addressed are listed in Table 2. The importance of physical fitness (in the context of deconditioning) will be described in detail under “Nonpharmacologic Intervention.” Other important factors will be discussed here. Note that treatment of concomitant hypothyroidism does not end Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms, but it may help relieve fatigue and low energy.

Psychological Factors: Psychological distress is correlated with pain, including pain in FMS. Thus, psychological factors such as anxiety, stress, depression, and poor coping, should always be addressed. Stress is an important factor in both triggering and perpetuating Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms. Besides counseling for psychological difficulties, anxiolytics and antidepressants in appropriate doses may be required. SSRIs are as effective as tricyclic agents for depression and have fewer side effects. If necessary, refer patients to a psychologist for stress reduction. Refer to a psychiatrist for refractory anxiety and depression.

Improving Sleep Quality: Non-restorative sleep exacerbates pain and fatigue. Poor sleep at night predicts pain the next day. Take a good sleep history and offer suggestions for improved sleep quality (Table 3). Morning fatigue is a sensitive indicator of non-restorative sleep. Restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement disorder is a cause of sleep disturbance. It is treatable with medications (see “Pharmacologic Management”).

Environmental Factors: Depending on individual sensitivity or weather factors, tell patients to avoid unnecessary outside trips in the winter. Tell them to stay at a comfortable temperature like in an air-conditioned room in the summer. Many patients are also sensitive to noise, smell, and light. Hyper-responsiveness to environmental stimuli and medications can tap central sensitization.

Occupational Factors: Prolonged sitting or standing are ergonomic factors that cause muscle strain. They may also lead to soft tissue strain, repetitive motion, and job stress. All may contribute to Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms. Based on current knowledge of pain physiology, repetitive motions can cause central sensitization. Following amplification and intensification of pain can happen, too. An important goal of the treatment of FMS is to keep the patient employed, both for psychological and economic reasons. Thus, these work-related aggravating factors should be discussed with the employer. Appropriate recommendations for a change of duties and improvement of adverse ergonomic conditions should be made.

Comorbid Conditions: This theory has not been proven in patients with Fibromyalgia. But current knowledge of central sensitization operative in the syndrome suggests that any continued source of peripheral nociception enhances sensitization and worsens pain. Thus, arthritis of any kind, neuropathy, or headaches should be treated. Restless legs syndrome disturbs sleep (Table 2).

Family and Social Factors: Adverse family circumstances, such as a stressful marriage, demanding children, and a lack of empathy and understanding by family members, can add significant distress. This, in turn, may aggravate pain, fatigue, and associated symptoms like headaches and migraines. Excessive attention from a solicitous spouse may also affect a patient’s pain. Refer your patient to a psychologist for help with coping skills, if needed. Encourage patients to have a hobby and a network of support.

6. Nonpharmacologic Approach!

When primary care physicians inquire about Fibromyalgia syndrome treatment, they ask, “I have used such and such medications without success. What should I try next?” This is unfortunate, since non-pharmacologic approaches, including patient support and education (Table 1), are an essential component of Fibromyalgia syndrome therapy. They should be used in parallel with drug treatment with equal emphasis. Often physicians do not use non-pharmacologic therapies. Patients who use both non-pharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies have better results than with either modality alone.

Physical Fitness: Many patients with FMS are deconditioned. Several controlled studies have shown the benefits of regular exercise in ameliorating Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms, including pain. But, randomized, controlled studies that did not pre-select patients based on their ability to engage in exercises did not show such benefit. The reason is obvious. It is difficult for most Fibromyalgia syndrome patients to exercise for cardiovascular fitness.

Some exercise is better than none for overall health benefits. It is important to be persistent in encouraging and monitoring a patient’s exercise at every office visit. We emphasize that in the phrase “regular exercise.” Regular is more important than exercise. It is the habit of initiating an exercise every day that is crucial.

We insist that patients keep a daily diary of their physical activities, in graphic form. They must note how much time they spend and their peak pulse rate. Then, they must bring the weekly graphs for our inspection during the next visit. We encourage our patients by saying that everyone can exercise. The key is to start slowly – for example, only 2 to 3 minutes of exercise a day, if need be.

Ask patients to gradually increase the exercise time. Say by 2 to 3 minutes each week, to the ideal 20 to 30 minutes of brisk exercise every day. Treadmill, outdoor walking, aerobic dancing, and swimming are excellent forms of exercise. Consider patient preference. Muscle-strengthening exercises started gradually, as above, are useful in reducing the effort needed to do a given task. Plus, it is likely to lessen fatigue.

Physical Therapy: No controlled data exist to show that physical therapy by itself helps patients with Fibromyalgia syndrome. But, clinical observation suggests that a subgroup of patients report significant benefit from such therapy for a few days. Physical therapy modalities include local heat (moist or dry), ultrasound, stretching, the range of motion exercises, muscle strengthening exercises, manipulation, and correction of posture. After the initial demonstration by a therapist, many of these modalities may be used by a patient at home regularly.

Electromyographic Biofeedback: Current data on the efficacy of electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback alone are contradictory. But, if facilities are available, this modality may be prescribed along with other important forms of therapy. It may include education, exercise, and medication. Some patients may benefit if they can be persuaded to try EMG biofeedback for at least 4 months or longer.

Acupuncture and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): One double-blind controlled study has shown the benefit of electroacupuncture in Fibromyalgia syndrome over a 3-week period. Long-term studies are needed. Appropriate studies showing the efficacy of conventional acupuncture or TENS are lacking. Some patients report benefits. Others report aggravation of pain from acupuncture or TENS therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and multidisciplinary treatment: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves training patients for coping skills and healthy behavior patterns. It also trains to restructure maladaptive beliefs such as catastrophizing (“I have a serious disease like cancer. I may die of it”), or significant pessimism (“My symptoms are killing me. I will never get better. I cannot do exercise; I cannot do anything”).

Although a few nonrandomized studies using waiting list controls demonstrated the benefit of CBT in Fibromyalgia syndrome, two well-designed randomized investigations using attention controls (who received adequate patient education regarding Fibromyalgia syndrome and its management, but without structured comprehensive CBT) demonstrated no benefit in the group that used CBT (Which is Time-Consuming and Expensive) compared with the control group.

We have found that some - but not all - “difficult” Fibromyalgia syndrome patients (those who did not respond to usual treatment) whom we referred to a competent psychologist for CBT derived some benefit. But, one may argue that CBT should be started early (particularly in those showing poor coping skills during the initial consultation) rather than late before maladaptive behaviors become ingrained.

Instead of recommending multidisciplinary treatment in a group setting under one umbrella, we individualize care and refer patients to an appropriate facility (Physical Therapy, Exercise, CBT, etc.) as needed. Multidisciplinary treatment is expensive and often not covered by insurance. And because of the group setting, it does not focus on an individual patient’s concerns. Its value is yet to be determined by randomized, double-blind controlled studies.

Hypnotherapy: One controlled study has shown the benefit of hypnotherapy in “Refractory” Fibromyalgia syndrome. Hypnotherapy is worth trying in an otherwise non-responsive patient if a competent therapist is available.

Meditation: In an open but otherwise well-designed study, weekly supervised meditation for 10 weeks was beneficial in more than half of the patients. Patients were also required to meditate daily for 50 minutes at home. In practice, however, patients may not be willing to follow such a time-consuming regimen.

7. Pharmacologic Treatment!

Drug treatment is as important as non-pharmacologic therapy. Randomized, double-blind, controlled studies have shown the efficacy of several drugs in FMS. But, long-term data are not available. Because evidence-based medicine emphasized in current medical practice, agents with clinically demonstrated efficacy should be tried first.

We then used other drugs in the same class (e.g. Tricyclic agents other than amitriptyline) that have a similar mode of action, despite the fact that these drugs may not have been studied in controlled trials. Like any treatment modality, drug therapy needs to be individualized. It may depend on symptom severity, comorbid psychiatric or “organic” diseases, sleep difficulties, and history of side effects. Drug treatment in Fibromyalgia syndrome has been reviewed.

Simple Analgesics: Simple analgesics, such as acetaminophen, may be prescribed for patients with mild or mild to moderate pain. NSAIDs were ineffective in several studies of patients with FMS. But, these agents may be used for concomitant conditions, Such as arthritis and dysmenorrhea, with the usual precautions.

Table 4 lists the centrally-acting drugs that have been found useful or effective in Fibromyalgia syndrome, including those that were studied in controlled trials. Their dosages and common side effects are also listed.

Tricyclic Agents: These drugs are reuptake blockers of both serotonin and norepinephrine. They are neurotransmitters that are implicated in the inhibitory pathway of pain physiology. Amitriptyline 2,16 and cyclobenzaprine 2,17 are the most widely used, based on their demonstrated efficacy in several studies. A lower dose of amitriptyline than that used in depression is effective in Fibromyalgia syndrome. The usual dose is 25 to 50 mg at bedtime. In patients who have side effects at 25 mg, start with a lower dose, i.e., 10 mg, and gradually titrated to 50 to 75 mg at bedtime.

Common adverse reactions include grogginess, dry mouth, daytime sleepiness, weight gain, and paradoxical insomnia. Cardiac arrhythmias associated with tricyclic antidepressants. occur rarely. Use caution in prescribing these agents in patients with heart disease and in elderly persons.

Cyclobenzaprine, a drug-related to the tricyclics but without antidepressant properties, is as effective as amitriptyline and has similar side effects. The long-term efficacy of tricyclic agents in Fibromyalgia syndrome is not known.

SSRIs: Fluoxetine alone at an average dose of 55 mg/d was effective in most outcome measures in a double-blind, randomized, controlled study of women with fibromyalgia syndrome. A similarly controlled study of a combination of fluoxetine, 20 mg in the morning, and amitriptyline, 10 to 25 mg at bedtime, found that this combination was significantly more effective than either drug alone in relieving both pain and poor sleep. Studies have shown that a drug with both serotonergic and noradrenergic properties works better in chronic pain.

Remember, the dose of a tricyclic drug, when used in combination with an SSRI (particularly fluoxetine), should be kept low to avoid serious drug interactions resulting in tricyclic overdose; blood tricyclic level should be checked if such an interaction is suspected. Other SSRIs shown in Table 4 have not been studied in Fibromyalgia syndrome, but anecdotal observation supports their benefit, particularly in combination with a low-dose tricyclic agent (10 to 50 mg at bedtime).

Other antidepressant medications: Many patients in our clinic have reported benefit from venlafaxine, trazodone, and nefazodone, but controlled studies are lacking.

8. Other Centrally Acting Drugs!

Tramadol, like cyclobenzaprine, is a central-acting drug without antidepressant properties. It is a reuptake inhibitor of serotonin and norepinephrine, but it also binds weakly with µ-opioid receptors. Although reports of addiction are rare, tramadol should not be prescribed in patients with a history of drug (including alcohol) abuse. Tramadol was effective in a randomized, double-blind controlled trial of patients with Fibromyalgia syndrome. In our practice, we prescribe 400 to 800 mg/d in divided doses with food. Smaller doses should be tried first and increased to the optimal dose because adverse reactions (such as GI effects, dizziness, and somnolence) are common.

Note that drugs with demonstrated efficacy in randomized, double-blind studies are not all antidepressants. This suggests that depression is not synonymous with Fibromyalgia syndrome. Moreover, tricyclic antidepressants have a direct central analgesic effect in Fibromyalgia syndrome irrespective of their effect on depression.

9. Medications for Associated Symptoms!

Medications for Associated Symptoms | Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Overview of the Chronic Condition


Hypnotic agents are useful for induction of sleep, but not for sleep maintenance or pain. Tricyclic agents are a better choice for restorative sleep in patients with fibromyalgia syndrome. Associated significant anxiety and depression should be treated with anxiolytic agents (such as alprazolam) and antidepressants. Remember that a larger dose of antidepressants is required than the low dose prescribed for Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms alone. For restless legs syndrome, there are several choices (all taken at bedtime):

  • Clonazepam, 0.5 to 2 mg.
  • Carbidopa-Levodopa, 25 to 100 mg, 1 or 2 tablets on an empty stomach.
  • Opioids (eg, Codeine (, 30 to 60 mg). Caveats include an increase in restless legs syndrome in the afternoon associated with Carbidopa-Levodopa and the potential abuse of codeine.

10. Tender Point Injections!

In an open study, injections of tender point sites were useful, with a median relief period of 3 months. We ask our patients to localize their most symptomatic sites with their own fingertips first. Then, we confirm those sites by palpation for injection. We use a 27-gauge 1-inch long needle and 1% or 2% lidocaine, 0.25 to 0.50 mL, usually in no more than 4 or 5 (Typically 2 to 4) sites. Make sure that the needle does not penetrate tissues beyond the muscles to avoid such complications as pneumothorax.

Studies of myofascial syndrome suggest that the addition of corticosteroids has no advantage over lidocaine alone. Even dry needling is useful, although it is more painful than an injection of a local anesthetic. Such injections may work by stimulating the local pain inhibitory neurons, “desensitizing” the state of central sensitization in FMS. This may explain why the benefit lasts beyond the local anesthetic effects. Remember, the success of a tender point injection depends not only on the injection itself but also on the “physician effect” (positive attitude, support, encouragement).

11. What About Narcotics?

Whether narcotics may be used in benign pain conditions such as FMS or osteoarthritis (OA) is a contentious issue among physicians. A double-blind, randomized controlled study of oxycodone (10 to 20 mg every 12 hours) in OA demonstrated its efficacy and relative safety over a period of 12 months.

We use narcotics quite only when other management components have failed. Also, we have found oxycodone, 10 to 30 mg/d in divided doses every 12 hours, and acetaminophen, 300 mg, with codeine, 30 mg, 2 to 4 times a day, beneficial. We use opioids during a flare-up. But they may be continued long-term provided no side effects or abuse emerges.

Although in theory, short-acting opioids may have a greater potential to induce addiction, we have not encountered such a problem in our practice. The key is to select patients carefully. A history of addiction or alcohol or drug abuse is a contraindication. Patients must be monitored regularly for drug-seeking behavior. Another caveat based on recent studies is that opioids can paradoxically increase sensitivity to pain in some persons. A patient who seems to need higher doses after some time may benefit from a decreased dose.

12. Complementary and Alternative Medicine!

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in FMS has been reviewed. It remains, for the most part, unproven in Fibromyalgia syndrome. A large number of studies on St John’s wort have yielded contradictory results. This herb product cannot be confidently recommended now because of a lack of standardization in various manufacturers’ products., its potential serious interactions with other antidepressants, particularly SSRIs, and its ineffectiveness in severe depression.

S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) is a naturally occurring compound that, at a dose of 400 mg bid, significantly improved pain, fatigue, and mood in a randomized, double-blind controlled study involving 44 Fibromyalgia syndrome patients. GI symptoms are the most common side effects. And, interaction with other antidepressants may occur. We have found SAM-e beneficial in a few of our patients.

Static magnetic therapy also relieved pain over a period of 6 months in a randomized, double-blind controlled study. We have not used this therapy so far, but it is worth trying in consultation with an expert in this area.

There are limited studies on CAM in Fibromyalgia syndrome, but for general information, the review by Crofford and Appleton is useful.

The figure shows a general pyramidal approach to Fibromyalgia syndrome management. Note that tender point injections may be used at any stage of treatment. And, opioid therapy is kept at the top rung of the pyramid.

13. Prognosis!

Clinical Highlights:

► Reassure patients that fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is not life-threatening. It will not cause tissue damage. Their symptoms are real and likely caused by a chemical imbalance. Educate patients about healthy behaviors as weight loss, smoking cessation, and good sleep habits.

► Stress may trigger or perpetuate Fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms, including pain. Besides counseling, pharmacologic agents such as antidepressants may be required. For patients who are anxious, anxiolytics at bedtime may be useful.

►Regular exercise is an important component of therapy. Have patients start gradually, if necessary, and encourage them to keep an exercise diary. Appropriate forms of exercise include walking, aerobic dancing, swimming, and muscle strengthening. Other non-pharmacologic modalities include physical therapy, electromyographic biofeedback, electroacupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, and meditation.

►Simple analgesics, such as acetaminophen, may be prescribed for mild to moderate pain. NSAIDs are ineffective for FMS symptoms but may be helpful for concomitant conditions.

► Amitriptyline is an effective tricyclic antidepressant and the agent most extensively studied for Fibromyalgia syndrome. It is used in lower doses than those recommended for depression. Cyclobenzaprine has similar efficacy and side effects. Fluoxetine is effective alone at a higher dose and in combination with amitriptyline.

►Tender point injections generally relieve symptoms for 1 to 3 months. Ask the patient to localize the most symptomatic sites with his or her fingertips first. Then, confirm those sites by palpation for injection. Use a 27-gauge 1-inch needle and 1% or 2% lidocaine, 0.25 to 0.50 mL, in no more than 5 (usually 2 to 4) sites.

If you're wondering how you should eat for fibromyalgia, watch the video below from how healthy:

Although follow-up studies of patients with Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) show no significant fluctuations over a period of several years, these studies have not evaluated symptoms every 1 to 2 weeks. Our observations suggest that most patients experience significant relief with therapeutic interventions over a period of 2 to 12 weeks (sometimes longer). During which, they are also functional. In a minority of patients, such relief may be sustained long-term. Thus, appropriate management is important.

What are your thoughts on the fibromyalgia syndrome overview? Tell us in the comments section below!

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on January 4, 2016, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. None of the nutritional products mentioned is intended to Diagnose, Treat, Cure or Prevent Any Disease.

ARTICLE SOURCE: We have not modified the factual content by Muhammad B. Yunus, MD, and Sule Arslan, MD, on fibromyalgia from the source, Rheumatology Network.com. This content is for your research, and we hope that it can help. This content is strictly for educational purposes and is not made for any kind of the commercial purpose of this blog.



Tags: fibromyalgia, FMS, treatment modalities