Caregivers are under a tremendous amount of physical strain and mental stress. Do the day-to-day challenges of caregiving lead to fibromyalgia, a painful condition that causes long-term, body-wide pain?

While it may seem there is a link, no evidence shows that caregivers are at higher risk for developing fibromyalgia, according to the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA). Fibromyalgia affects about 10 million Americans, occurs most often in women and can be extremely debilitating. About 80 percent of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women, and most people are diagnosed during middle age, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

While caregivers may not be at higher risk for fibromyalgia, for caregivers who do suffer from it, the painful condition interferes with basic daily activities. Caring for someone else becomes a hundred times harder when the caregiver is in chronic widespread pain.

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a common syndrome that causes long-term, body-wide pain and tender points in joints, muscles, tendons and other soft tissues. Simply put, fibromyalgia is chronic, ongoing pain that has no apparent cause. Although stress doesn't cause fibromyalgia, it can make symptoms much worse.

What Causes Fibromyalgia?

The cause of Fibromyalgia is not known, but the symptoms may worsen and continue for months or years. Although none have been well proven, possible causes or triggers of fibromyalgia include:

  • Physical or emotional trauma
  • An abnormal pain response – areas in the brain of sufferers may react differently to pain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • An infectious microbe, such as a virus

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

The primary symptom of fibromyalgia is pain. According to the NFA:

  • The exact locations of the pain are called tender points, found in the soft tissue on the back of the neck, shoulders, sternum, lower back, hips, shins, elbows and knees. The pain then spreads out from these areas.
  • The pain is described as deep-aching, radiating, gnawing, shooting or burning, and ranges from mild to severe.
  • The joints are not affected, although the pain may feel like it is coming from the joints.
  • Pain can increase with activity, cold or damp weather, anxiety, and stress.
  • Fatigue and problems with sleep are seen in almost all people with fibromyalgia.

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Diagnosing Fibromyaliga

While no one knows exactly what causes fibromyalgia, problems with chemicals that send pain messages to and from the brain are thought to be the culprit. Diagnosis of fibromyalgia requires a history of at least 3 months of widespread pain, and pain and tenderness in at least 11 of 18 tender-point sites. Lab tests and x-rays help confirm the diagnosis by ruling out other conditions that may have similar symptoms.

How to Get Help for Fibromyalgia

Because there is no specific cure-all treatment for fibromyalgia, managing the condition involves trial and error. The most commonly used methods for managing fibromyalgia include:

  • Pain management: A number of medications, including antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and non-narcotic pain medicines are used in the treatment of fibromyalgia.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapists can show people with fibromyalgia how to relieve symptoms of pain and stiffness in everyday life, with exercises that build strength, improve range of motion and relieve deep muscle pain.
  • Exercise: Physical exercises, such as swimming, walking, yoga and strength-training activities may decrease pain and sleep problems.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Psychologists and other mental health professionals help patients recognize negative patterns of thinking, teaching them how to react to stressful situations and cope with caregiver stress.
  • Pain diary: Keeping a log tracks pain cycles. This helps sufferers remember exactly what happened each day and makes them more aware of when and where the pain starts and ends. The logs can be shared with doctors, who can recommend appropriate treatments.
  • Education: Learning about fibromyalgia, its causes and symptoms empowers people to deal with the pain. Group discussions and demonstrations, lectures, and written materials are some effective means of education.
  • Stress reduction. Stress-management techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises or meditation, may help.

The key to effectively living with fibromyalgia is to seek medical help which includes a multi-faceted approach to managing and treating the disease.