Usually, it's easy to find out what's making kids sick. Common childhood conditions like strep throat and ear infections are pretty simple to diagnose with a throat swab or doctor's exam.
Yet when kids complain of vague symptoms, like fatigue, achiness, and difficulty sleeping, they could be experiencing any one of a number of common illnesses. One condition that's easy to overlook in children and teens is fibromyalgia, which causes pain in the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints.
Fibromyalgia can be hard to spot in children because it's much more common in adults. Most of the time fibromyalgia affects women over age 18. Even so, between 1% and 7% of children are thought to have fibromyalgia or similar conditions.
Fibromyalgia is part of a group of conditions collectively known as musculoskeletal pain syndrome (MSPS). In children, fibromyalgia is called juvenile primary fibromyalgia syndrome (JPFS). If a child also has arthritis or another disease related to the fibromyalgia, it's called juvenile secondary fibromyalgia syndrome.
Here's how to spot the symptoms of fibromyalgia in teens and children, and what to do if you suspect your child has it.
Fibromyalgia in Teens and Children: What Causes It?
No one really knows what causes fibromyalgia. The condition tends to run in families, although no gene has been discovered yet. Researchers have linked fibromyalgia to a number of other health conditions, including immune, endocrine, psychological, and biochemical problems.
Just as fibromyalgia in adults is more likely to affect women, child and teen fibromyalgia occurs more often in girls than in boys. Most girls with the condition are diagnosed between ages 13 and 15.
Symptoms of Fibromyalgia in Children and Teens
One of the main symptoms of child fibromyalgia is sore spots on the muscles. These spots hurt when pressure is put on them, which is why they're called "tender points."
To find these points, the doctor will press with their thumb on 18 areas that tend to be painful in people with fibromyalgia. Kids who have fibromyalgia will feel tenderness in at least five of these spots. They'll also have been experiencing aches and pains for at least three months.
The soreness can start in just one part of the body, but eventually it can affect other areas. Children with fibromyalgia have described the pain in many different ways, including stiffness, tightness, tenderness, burning, or aching.
Other symptoms of fibromyalgia in teens and children include:
- Difficulty sleeping and waking up tired
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty remembering)
- Restless legs while sleeping
One of the many reasons why teen fibromyalgia is so frustrating is that the symptoms compound one another. For example, the pain of fibromyalgia makes it difficult to sleep. When kids can't sleep, they feel more tired during the day. Being tired makes the pain feel more severe. The symptoms become a cycle that is difficult to break.
Fibromyalgia can be so debilitating that it causes many kids with the condition to miss school an average of three days each month. Having fibromyalgia can also be socially isolating. Teens with fibromyalgia can have trouble making friends and may feel like they're unpopular because of their condition.
A diagnosis of fibromyalgia in a child is made only after a long series of tests have ruled other possible causes for the child's symptoms.
Treating Fibromyalgia in Teens and Children
A team of specialists works together to treat fibromyalgia in children and teens. This team can include a:
- Pediatric rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in treating children with arthritis and other rheumatologic diseases)
- Physical therapist
Though there currently is no cure for fibromyalgia in children (or adults), several good treatments are available to help manage its symptoms, including:
Coping strategies. One of the most effective ways to treat fibromyalgia in teens and children is by using coping strategies to manage the pain. A technique called cognitive behavioral therapy helps children with fibromyalgia learn what triggers their pain and how to deal with it. It's very helpful for improving kids' ability to function, and relieving their depression. Other behavior-based approaches to treating fibromyalgia include muscle relaxation and stress-relieving techniques (such as deep breathing or meditation).
Medication. Medications may be used to treat adults with fibromyalgia. Rheumatologists may try some of these same medicines in children. However, the safety and effectiveness of fibromyalgia drugs isn't as well studied in children as in adults.
Exercise. Exercise is an important part of fibromyalgia treatment. Children with fibromyalgia who stay active tend to have less intense pain and less depression. A physical therapist can show kids the best exercises for fibromyalgia and can teach them how to ease into an exercise program gradually so they don't get injured.
Physical therapy. Physical therapy and massage can ease some of the muscle soreness that children with fibromyalgia experience.
For teens and children who are struggling with fibromyalgia, these treatments can bring help and hope. Getting enough rest and exercise, eating healthy foods, and relieving stress can help control fibromyalgia so that kids with the condition can stay symptom-free over the long term.