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What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a condition marked by chronic pain and allodynia (a heightened and painful response to pressure).

Other symptoms range from extreme fatigue, sleep disturbance and joint stiffness, to difficulty swallowing, bowel and bladder problems, numbness and tingling.

Fibromyalgia affects two to five per cent of Australians, and tends to develop in women during middle adulthood, though men and young people can be affected too. It does not cause inflammation or damage in painful areas, and is thought to be due to an overactive pain system. Fibromyalgia is different to polymyalgia rheumatic, a type of arthritis in which symptoms are felt more in the muscles.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia symptoms can range from mild to severe, and include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to pain due to a decreased pain threshold
  • Increased responsiveness to sensory stimuli such as heat, cold, light, and numbness or tingling
  • Problems with cognition (impacting on memory and concentration)
  • Problems with sleep

Some people with fibromyalgia have other symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome, an irritable or overactive bladder, headaches, and numbness or tingling in the arms and legs.

For some people, symptoms may disappear for extended periods of time, even years. Others experience pain every day, or experience variations between these two extremes.

Causes of fibromyalgia

As yet, the exact cause or causes of fibromyalgia are not known, though it is believed to involve environmental, genetic, neurobiological and psychological factors. It commonly occurs in people with:

  • An illness such as a virus (or a recent illness or infection)
  • Emotional stress and depression
  • Family history
  • Lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Mood disorders
  • Pain from an injury or trauma
  • Previous pain syndromes
  • Substance abuse

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but treatment can help manage symptoms.

Diagnosis and treatment of fibromyalgia

Because it does not cause inflammation or damage, fibromyalgia can be very difficult to diagnose. There are no blood tests, scans or x-rays available, though these tests may be used to exclude other conditions.

Signs that suggest a diagnosis of fibromyalgia are:

  • Abnormal tenderness at particular points around the neck, shoulder, chest, elbow, knee and hip
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Widespread pain for three months or longer

Effective management starts with a correct diagnosis, after which a program is designed to meet each person’s needs. Treatment generally involves a combination of:

  • Education – people with fibromyalgia need to understand the condition in order to decide which management approach will suit them
  • Exercise – gentle aerobic exercise, such as walking, tai chi or swimming, can help manage symptoms
  • Massage – this can aid muscle relaxation and stress management
  • Medication – combined with other strategies, medication may be used to manage pain, promote sleep and reduce stress
  • Nutrition – eating a balanced diet can help provide better energy levels, maintain weight, and achieve a great sense of wellbeing
  • Stress management and relaxation – skills that can help manage stress include planning, relaxation, assertiveness and emotional management

Related conditions

Living with ongoing pain and fatigue often leads to secondary conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Further information and resources 


This article is of a general nature only. You should seek medical advice if you think you may have symptoms of fibromyalgia.