Fibromyalgia: Myths and Facts

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 25, 2023
3 min read

Fibromyalgia is a complex disease that can cause things like:

There's confusion and misinformation about what causes the disease (scientists don’t know) and how to treat it. Let's separate fact from fiction.

People with fibromyalgia often say that others, including some health care professionals, have told them the disease doesn’t exist. This may stem in part from the fact that there is no clear test that says you either have it or you don’t.

Fibromyalgia -- like diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression -- exists on a scale. Symptoms add up and can get worse until your doctor decides you have it. Whether you do isn’t always obvious, and not all doctors agree on what adds up to a diagnosis.

Some call fibromyalgia “masked depression.” But not everyone with fibromyalgia reports depression.

In fact, lifelong depression happens to about 40% of people with fibromyalgia. What's more, many people have depression without the chronic pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia. Confusion may stem from the fact that some symptoms of the two conditions overlap. That certain genes and psychological traits are associated with both diseases probably adds to it. But that doesn't mean they're the same. In fact, research continues on the causes of both conditions.

For the past 3 decades, doctors have looked for tender points to diagnose fibromyalgia. These are spots on the body like the jaw, shoulder, upper arm, lower arm, hip, upper leg, etc. that are tender or painful to the touch.

More recent research suggests that about 20% of people with fibromyalgia may not have these tender points.

Today, doctors will ask you about your pain in each of five regions of your body:

  • Axial region (your neck, chest, abdomen, and back)
  • Left upper region (jaw, shoulder, arm)
  • Left lower region (hip, buttock, leg)
  • Right upper region (jaw, shoulder, arm)
  • Right lower region (hip, buttock, leg)

They'll also want to know if you have common symptoms of fibromyalgia like sleep problems, tiredness, or brain fog. To help them make a diagnosis, they'll judge your answers against a checklist called the widespread pain index and a test called the symptom severity scale.

Doctors can prescribe medications like pain relievers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs to help with the symptoms of fibromyalgia. But medications will work differently for different people.

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself feel better without medication:

Get enough sleep. Make your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark. Try to get up at the same time every day and create a relaxing pre-bedtime routine that could include things like a warm bath, light reading, and relaxation exercises.

Exercise regularly. You don’t have to run a marathon or even join a gym. Walking, gardening, and yoga can be great options. Try to do 30 minutes on most days of the week. But avoid heavy exercise close to bedtime. Whatever you decide to do, make sure to check with your doctor before you start.

Ease stress. This could mean avoiding certain situations, or if that’s not possible, doing activities that can calm you like meditation or tai chi.

Ask about therapies. A physical therapist can teach you exercises that can help you get stronger. An occupational therapist can help you change how you do certain things so your body can do things easier. Talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you feel better about yourself and teach you how to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way.

Ask your doctor for referrals.

Learn about your condition. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to advocate for your needs. Plus knowledge can ease anxiety and help your treatment work better.