If you’re confused about what fibromyalgia actually is, you’re not alone. This chronic pain disorder is one of the most complex conditions out there, and it’s hard even for doctors to recognize and diagnose. According to new research from the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the organization representing more than 78,000 osteopathic physicians (DOs) in the United States, patients experience their symptoms for an average of three years and go through at least three doctors before being diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, DO, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford and AOA board-certified family physician in Philadelphia. ThirdAge spoke with Dr. Caudle about the new research, the impact of being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and the AOA’s new public awareness campaign called “Living A Full Life With Fibro.”
Q: Fibromyalgia is a complex condition that isn’t commonly understood very well. Can you explain what it is?
A: Fibromyalgia patients tend to experience pain in specific or generalized areas of the body, and the pain is often very severe. People can experience any number of symptoms, but some common ones are muscle aches all over the body, depression, fatigue, and headaches. Essentially, fibromyalgia is a combination of pain with other symptoms.
Q: How many people have fibromyalgia?
A: Five to10 million Americans, and 75-90 percent of them are women. But the results of the American Osteopathic Association survey revealed that 1 in 3 people don’t know what fibromyalgia is, which could indicate that there are many more undiagnosed people out there with the condition.
Q: Why does it generally take visits to several different doctors before a people are correctly diagnosed?
A: No two fibromyalgia patients present with the same symptoms. As doctors, we usually diagnose patients after giving them a good physical exam and talking to them at length. The diagnosis comes after ruling out other conditions, which is why it can take years for someone to be diagnosed correctly. There is no blood test or x-ray to test for fibromyalgia. We just listen to the patient’s history, talk to them about their symptoms, give them physical exams, and make sure they are not suffering from something else, such as a thyroid condition or migraines. Finding the right doctor is a really important first step.
Q: How would someone go about finding a really good doctor?
A: The American Osteopathic Association has a great website, www.osteopathic.org/fibro, which has a list of physicians and shows how you can find them. The website also has quiz that you can take called “Fibro: Fact or Fiction Quiz” and a “60 Day Action Plan” to help assess your condition
Q: Speaking of being diagnosed, what impact does a diagnosis of fibromyalgia have on a patient and their family?
A: A diagnosis of fibromyalgia can have a profound effect. People who suffer from this condition sometimes have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, trouble holding a job, and even have a hard time hanging out with family and friends. But the hope is that once the patient is diagnosed, they can begin treatment and start living their life to the fullest.
Q: The AOA survey showed that there is a stigma associated with fibromyalgia. What impact does this stigma have on patients?
A: Over half of people who took the survey said they were afraid as being seen as faking their symptoms. The stigma associated with fibromyalgia can cause many people to delay treatment.
Q: There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but what are some of the ways it can be managed effectively?
A: Each patient is very different, but there are a number of possible treatment options that tend to be effective. Some treatment options are medication, physical activity (whether it’s exercise, physical therapy, or aqua therapy), osteopathic manipulative treatment (a hands-on treatment used by DOs to care for musculoskeletal pain), and counseling. The good thing is that there are so many different options available.
Q What would you say to patients out there who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia or believe they may have it?
A: Have hope. I always encourage patients to be honest, have hope, and to take action. No one knows your body better than you. People with fibromyalgia can live healthy and fantastic lives, but they have to take action and be willing to try different treatment options. They key is to find a physician who can work well with you to manage this disease.