Recently, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffers from the pain disorder fibromyalgia. She announced the news via a Twitter post, which also referenced her upcoming film Gaga: Five Foot Two. “In our documentary the #chronicillness #chronicpain I deal w/ is #Fibromyalgia I wish to help raise awareness & connect people who have it,” the singer wrote.
That led to an outpouring of support for the songwriter, as well as some confusion: What exactly is fibromyalgia, and what causes it? In a sense, it’s a difficult condition to define. Fibromyalgia causes fatigue and widespread pain, but it varies greatly in severity from one patient to the next. Actor Morgan Freeman suffers from the condition, and he told Esquire that the disorder prevents him from piloting jets (a hobby he began at the age of 65). “It’s the fibromyalgia,” he told the publication. “Up and down the arm. That’s where it gets so bad. Excruciating.”
To be labeled as fibromyalgia, the pain must occur on both sides of the body, as well as above and below the waist. It’s also characterized by cognitive difficulties (for instance, inhibited attention span) and insomnia. It’s frequently associated with sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome, per the Mayo Clinic, along with a host of other health conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), joint disorders, interstitial cystitis, and migraines.
What causes fibromyalgia? Doctors aren’t sure.
For several decades, physicians assumed that the pain was purely imaginary. That changed sometime around 2013, when a number of researchers linked the condition to neurological issues and changes in the parts of the brain that interpret pain (recent research suggests that those brain changes are caused by the condition, rather than the other way around). A group of scientists at Albany Medical College discovered that people with fibromyalgia have an excessive number of nerve fibers lining the blood vessels of their skin. “Blood vessel nerve fibers are an important target that haven’t been in our line of thinking to date in chronic pain conditions,” neuroscientist Frank Rice, who performed the research, told USA Today. Scientists still don’t fully understand the condition’s triggers. Some research suggests that infections, genetics, and physical trauma may play roles. Women are more likely to develop fibromyalgia than men, and conditions like osteoarthritis and lupus can also increase a person’s risk. Because fibromyalgia disturbs sleep and causes both physical pain and cognitive issues, it can make life extraordinarily difficult. Physicians sometimes recommend seizure medications and antidepressants, but these don’t help every patient. Physical therapy can be effective, as can counseling. The primary goal of fibromyalgia treatment is typically to help the patient manage the pain. That could change at some point in the future. In the meantime, it’s important to realize that the symptoms of fibromyalgia can apply to a number of other conditions. If you have any of the signs of fibromyalgia—including chronic pain lasting more than three months, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty focusing, headaches, or digestive disorders—see a physician right away. While fibromyalgia varies from patient to patient, new treatment options may become available as physicians learn more about the disorder, and current treatments can limit pain. For more information, visit the National Fibromyalgia Association.