There’s a condition that mimics the symptoms of big players like arthritis, lupus and chronic fatigue syndrome – so before you go self-diagnosing, it’s worth asking your doctor about fibromyalgia. This underdiagnosed condition can be easy to miss – here are 5 surprising signs you’ve got it, plus the role diet can play in its development and severity.
Fibromyalgia is a debilitating condition that often goes undiagnosed and untreated, affecting around 2% of Aussies and most commonly affecting middle-aged women. It often overlaps with other somatic illnesses and mental health conditions, and is characterised by pain, tenderness and sensory issues due to the over-sensitisation of the body’s neural pain pathways. Often time, upon medical assessment, symptoms of pain, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction lack evident abnormalities, leaving doctors to overlook the possibility of fibromyalgia. The condition may develop suddenly, but it’s usually the tip of the iceberg of a build-up of maladaptive bodily functions and responses, though infection and chronic disease are other possible causes of fibromyalgia.
A person may confuse fibromyalgia symptoms with those of arthritis, or joint inflammation due to the number of overlapping signs. Let's take a look at the conditions fibromyalgia is often mistaken for:
- Lupus: This is autoimmune condition involves the immune system attacking your body’s tissues and organs, and can affect everything from your skin, lungs, joints and kidneys to your brain and heart. Fatigue, fever and stiffness of the joints are all common symptoms – and they happen to overlap with those of fibromyalgia.
- Multiple sclerosis: This condition involves nerve damage which then interferes with the brain and body’s communication signals. The symptoms range from pain and fatigue to coordination issues and vision loss. These symptoms can be chronic for many people with the condition.
- Thyroid conditions: These can include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, and all involve the dysfunction of the butterfly-shaped gland you’ll find at the base of your throat.
- Anemia: This condition occurs when we’re lacking the necessary number of red blood cells needed to transport oxygen throughout the body. The results can range from fatigue to weakness and achiness.
- Type 2 diabetes: Some of the symptoms in this common condition, which affects 8% of people around the globe, overlap with fibromyalgia, such as the fatigue and weakness. Interestingly, research shows these two conditions often coexist, with around 15% of those with type 2 diabetes also suffering from fibromyalgia, with scientists suggesting it could be the poor glucose control that accompanies both conditions.
- Axial spondyloarthritis: This arthritis targets the spine and, for some, their arm and leg joints, and possibly the skin, intestines and eyes. A common symptom is back pain.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This is another form of arthritis which occurs when the immune system targets your own cells, leading to inflammation in the body. The most common target is the joints.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome: This condition is characterised by excessive fatigue which continues for a minimum of six months. The fatigue doesn’t get better with rest, but may worsen with exercise.
The signs of fibromyalgia
The most common signs and symptoms of the condition include:
- Bodily pain, achiness and stiffness
- Fatigue and weakness
- Depression, anxiety and low mood
- Sleeping difficulty or irregularity
- Memory and concentration problems
- Headaches and migraine headaches
But there are a few symptoms that don’t often get the spotlight – but they’re no less distressing or debilitating. Let’s take a look at some of the more unexpected signs you might have fibromyalgia.
Paresthesia describes sensations in the body that are considered strange or uncomfortable, but not necessarily painful. This could include itchiness, numbness, prickliness, along with crawling or tingling sensations. Though they’re often mild, for some they can be distressing and, when it’s a symptom of fibromyalgia, people are more likely to experience pain with their paresthesia.
Brain fog – sometimes referred to as fibro fog in the context of fibromyalgia – involves a host of brain and mental clarity-related issues that may include the following:
- Difficulty focusing or multitasking
- Difficulty with recalling things
- Struggling to follow conversations
- Mental exhaustion
While research in the area is lacking, it is believed that improving sleep issues, depressive symptoms, fatigue and chronic pain can reduce the severity of brain fog.
Due to the fact that fibromyalgia promotes increased inflammatory markers in the body, people may report feeling more intense sensitivity, from everything from light to sound and smell. For instance, the inflammatory markers in the skin can make something as simple as wearing tight clothes feel painful.
If your palms are sweaty and your shirt is soaked through despite engaging in no physical exercise or stressful activities, this generally indicates sweat levels on the side of excess. Many people with fibromyalgia report this embarrassing symptom, with some even convinced they have a fever, and it’s all down to what’s known as autonomic dysfunction in the hypothalamus – the area of the brain responsible for sleep, sweat and bowel movement regulation. Fibromyalgia can disrupt the flow of things, leading to those sweat-soaked days – even in the middle of winter!
Allodynia is a lesser-known symptom that involves pain or discomfort from a stimulus that generally should not cause such a reaction. For instance, lightly brushing the skin with a soft object like a tissue or a feather could create a painful response in someone with fibromyalgia, as could the feeling of socks or shoes. This neurological symptom can be pinned on haywire sensory perception – the body identifies pain from what is, essentially, a harmless action.
The role of diet in fibromyalgia
Before we get into how the foods we put on our plate can affect the severity of fibromyalgia, let's take a look at some of the aggravating factors in fibromyalgia:
- Psychosocial stressors
- Sleep disturbances
As you can see, obesity is one of the major contributors to worsening the symptoms of fibromyalgia. As such, one of the best ways to reduce your risk for obesity is to maintain a healthy diet – and this includes both what you eat and what you don’t eat. Excess sugar falls into the latter category – and this is all to do with fructose. This sugar is found in everything from fruit, table sugar and honey to highly-processed breads, cereals and flavoured dairy products. Unlike with glucose, our livers are left with the burden responsible for metabolising fructose. While our body tolerate it in moderation – a piece of fruit, for instance, has fibre to slow our absorption – when we go overboard with highly-processed foods, we can go on to develop visceral fat. The result? Obesity. If we continue with these sugar-laden diets, we’re likely to join the 31% of Aussies who are obese. Considering Aussies consume around 15 teaspoons of added sugar each day, more than doubling the 6-teaspoon recommendation for women, it’s no surprise that the presence of obesity in those with fibromyalgia sits at around 35%.
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