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Could you have fibromyalgia?

Do your muscles often ache for no apparent reason? Do you consider joint pain and stiffness a “normal” part of life? Do you feel anxious, fatigued or depressed much of the time? If so, you may have fibromyalgia, a syndrome that affects as many as 6 million Americans—most of whom are women.

A mysterious syndrome

Fibromyalgia is not a progressive disease, but it can still be debilitating. Chronic muscle, ligament and joint pain can prevent patients from enjoying daily activities and, in many cases, from getting a good night’s sleep. Many sufferers experience chronic stomach pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.

Making matters worse, the syndrome is difficult to diagnose. For one thing, many women with fibromyalgia mistake the symptoms as a normal part of growing older, perhaps because most patients are diagnosed with the disease around age 50. For another, there are no tests to detect fibromyalgia, so doctors may have trouble pinpointing the problem.

Its symptoms often mimic those of other conditions, such as an underactive thyroid or rheumatoid arthritis. But experts have identified at least one telltale sign of fibromyalgia: a pattern of “tender spots”—specific muscles and tendons painful to the touch. A woman who shows tenderness in at least 11 of the 18 identified spots, some of which are found on the neck, knee, inner elbow, shoulder and hip, will likely be diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Tuning in to the symptoms

You shouldn’t have to live with muscle or joint pain and stiffness. If you experience unexplained achiness, persistent fatigue, headache and difficulty sleeping for three months or more, talk to your healthcare provider.

Prepare for your visit by describing your symptoms in detail. Write down where it hurts, how long the pain lasts and if anything seems to relieve it. Some researchers believe that stress, the weather, inactivity and overwork may aggravate symptoms, so be sure to include those factors in your description.

Finding relief

Although there are no easy answers for soothing fibromyalgia, some women say these steps can help:

  • Ease stress. Learn techniques that will help you manage daily tension. Try relaxation exercises like deep breathing, yoga, massage or even a soothing bath.
  • Fight back. Try over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen during a flare-up. Your doctor may also prescribe a mild antidepressant to relax muscles and help you sleep better.
  • Learn what you can. Read up on the syndrome and consider joining a fibromyalgia support group.
  • Exercise. Try moderate activity 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a week. Walking, biking and swimming are good choices. Many fibromyalgia sufferers also benefit from physical or occupational therapy.
  • Knock yourself out. Establishing a regular sleeping pattern can help to develop a bedtime routine that “tells” your body it’s time for sleep.