Symptoms Of Fibromyalgia In Women
Fibromyalgia - The Sexist Condition....
The Short Answer –
80% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women, although why is unknown. Even worse than that is that successive studies have shown that women actually feel the pain of fibromyalgia more acutely.
In this article, we look at the typical symptoms of fibromyalgia in women and ask why they present more severely than in men…
Symptoms Of Fibromyalgia In Women
Women not only suffer more frequently with fibromyalgia than men, but the symptoms they suffer with are typically far worse.
In this article we examine what symptoms you might suffer with as a woman and why the symptoms of fibromyalgia in women are different at all.
Fibromyalgia is defined by Wikipedia as
“Fibromyalgia (FM) is a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure. Other symptoms include tiredness to a degree that normal activities are affected, sleep problems and troubles with memory”
From there, it is obvious the two most likely symptoms to suffer with if you have fibromyalgia are –
1) Pain All Over The Body
Particularly likely to be affected are your back, your neck and your hips. This is the mainstay of any fibromyalgia patient. Often it can be the differentiating factor between fibromyalgia and other similar conditions like rheumatoid arthritis that only affect certain parts of the body.
2) Chronic Fatigue
(Not to be confused with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which is similar, but not the same). Tiredness is the other key destroyer for people with fibromyalgia. Some have put their increased sensitivity to pain down to the fact that they are exhausted all the time.
The tiredness doesn’t even mean you haven’t slept – it just means that your fibromyalgia has stopped you from getting the ‘deep’ sleep we all require for healing and mental balance.
There are also a whole range of other generic symptoms of fibromyalgia that can affect both men and women, but are felt worse in women. These include –
Confusion and forgetfulness caused by the blur of constant pain and tiredness. In extreme cases, this can even lead to a slurring of speech.
4) Increased Sensitivity To Pain
Different to ‘pain all over the body’, because this literally means that your body feels the same pain stimuli differently. Stubbing your toe for example with the same force that might cause a pain score of 2 in a non-fibromyalgia person, might register a 7 or an 8 and be absolute agony for someone with fibromyalgia.
Nausea and vomiting are common reactions both to the sort of drugs that are typically used to control the pain and also a result of the damage to your central nervous system.
6) Increased Sensitivity To Environmental Changes
Anything from high pressure weather systems to city centres with poor air quality can all cause ‘fibromyalgia flares’.
7) Frequent Need To Urinate
Damage to your bodies’ nervous system that has potentially caused your fibromyalgia can also affect your ability to control urination.
8) Dry Eyes
Similar to Sjögren’s syndrome, this can be very painful.
9) Jaw Pain
Up to 90% of fibromyalgia patients suffer with jaw pain, frequently extending to the entire face.
Muscle pain in the neck and face, along with damage to the brain’s pain receptors can all lead to crippling headaches and frequently migraines.
11) Hair Loss
This can be a result of either medications you are on or thyroid dysfunction. Try changing medication if you find this happening.
Fibromyalgia will make you more sensitive to the allergens that trigger your allergies.
13) Restless Legs Syndrome
Low-lying pain in the legs causes uncomfortable feelings and the desire to constantly move them.
14) Paraesthesia (pins and needles)
Even less is known about why this occurs than most symptoms of fibromyalgia! The only theories link it to the brain, but still have no idea why it occurs.
‘Clinical Rheumatology’ found 73% of their trialists with fibromyalgia feared physical activity. Partly as a result of ‘Fibro-fog’ and partially thought to be down to a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system, dizziness is most reported immediately after getting up.
Given that your in chronic pain all the time and barely sleeping, it is no wonder if you are more than just a little bit stressed.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a ‘which came first – the chicken or the egg’ scenarios, because while pain definitely causes stress, so does being stressed make your pain much worse. Stress tightens muscles and increases pain ten-fold. So whether pain creates stress or stress increases pain, it is not a good thing.
Especially in the morning after waking or any period of inactivity. If you have fibromyalgia you also have to be careful stretching out your stiffness, because this can easily lead to crippling cramp.
Depression is very common amongst fibromyalgia sufferers. Given what you have to put up with – pain, sleep deprivation, stress and many people not having a clue what is wrong with you, it is hardly surprising if a lot of sufferers feel alone.
19) Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Both constipation and diarrhoea. The exact reason why is unclear, but statistically a lot of fibromyalgia patients suffer with IBS.
20) Breathing Difficulties
21) Excessive Sweating
23) Restless Leg Syndrome
Fibromyalgia has been linked to hormone levels in the body, principally because hormones can change and affect the CNS (Central Nervous System). It is the CNS that delivers pain messages and is thought to be altered if you have fibromyalgia.
During the normal menstrual cycle, hormone levels fluctuate considerably, leaving you open to much more severe mood swings, fatigue and sensitivity to pain.
As a result, there also several symptoms that will only affect women, but can have a major impact on your quality of life if you are a fibromyalgia sufferer.
These are –
24) Very heavy periods and painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea)
25) Underactive Thyroid
Pregnancy and Fibromyalgia
If you get pregnant having been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, it is not an impossible situation – but it will be a time of even greater change than for a normal first-time mum.
It is vital if you are trying for a baby, to consult your doctor first. Many of the medications for fibromyalgia (as detailed here ‘What Is Fibromyalgia’) are contraindicated for pregnancy and can cause severe damage to your unborn baby.
This does not mean the end. It simply means that you’ll probably be taken off all your medications and asked to try an even greater range of alternative therapies (see ‘Treatments’) to replace their pain-dampening impact.
It is also worth trying every alternative pain reducing therapy because it can be anticipated that your fibromyalgia symptoms will get worse in the early stages of your pregnancy.
As noted by the Us Office On Women’s Health, not only will your symptoms get worse, but the ‘normal’ effects of being pregnant (tiredness, stress and mood swings) will also be felt far more significantly.
If you were not trying for a baby, but think you may have fallen pregnant, then again you need to get to a doctor as soon as possible (literally the next day).
Why Are Symptoms Worse In Women?
Having looked at the symptoms of fibromyalgia in women, it is worth asking ‘why are they worse in women than men?’
According to the National Fibromyalgia Association of America somewhere between 75% and 90% of all Fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Other research centres have figures that differ slightly but all are agreed on one thing – at least three quarters of all Fibromyalgia sufferers are women.
However, this is not unusual amongst pain disorders – statistically women are far more likely to suffer with a whole range of chronic pain conditions including headaches, joint pain and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
But why is this?
The answer is multi-dimensional.
In the first instance, we need to remember what fibromyalgia is. Fibromyalgia is a syndrome characterised by chronic pain all over the body, normally backed up by chronic fatigue. There are a host of other definitions, covered in our article on ‘What Is Fibromyalgia’, but for now pain and fatigue are the main two.
The first key difference then lies in the fact that numerous studies have shown that women feel pain more acutely than men. To quote just one piece of research from the British Journal Of Anaethesia (‘Sex differences in pain: a brief review of clinical and experimental findings’ by Bartley and Fillingim), “The expansive body of literature in this area clearly suggests that men and women differ in their responses to pain, with increased pain sensitivity and risk for clinical pain commonly being observed among women”
So women feel the same pain stimuli more acutely than men.
The second reason symptoms of fibromyalgia are felt differently in women is down to cultural factors. It is generally considered more acceptable for women to feel pain, so their sensory system becomes wired to accept the feeling of pain.
Men’s cultural desire to be seen as strong mentally sets them up to ignore or subconsciously distort feelings of pain in fit in with the correct stereotype.
As recorded in an article by the National Fibromyalgia Association “traditional male roles in society dictate stoicism in the face of pain, which in turn may translate to an anxious, rather than a depressive, response to pain”.
This article goes on to note that “women experience significantly more common fatigue, morning fatigue, all-over hurting, irritable bowel syndrome, total and number of symptoms. Women also typically have significantly more tender points”.
The third reason why women might not only be more prone to developing fibromyalgia, but also feel it’s symptoms more acutely, is down to hormones.
We touched on it earlier under the menstrual cycle, but Oestrogen, Progesterone and particularly Serotonin are all believed to have a considerable impact on the CNS and therefore pain.
The relationship between Oestrogen and Progesterone is a complicated one when it comes to the Central Nervous System – Oestrogen is excitatory to the CNS, increasing activity to the point that it’s high levels can trigger seizures, as well as heightening the experience of pain.
A progesterone balance?
However, progesterone is supposed to inhibit the activity of the CNS, although it is now theorised that inhibiting the brains activity could actually stop it controlling the pain messages and so again increase the pain felt by you during a ‘fibromyalgia flare’.
Either way, it is fair to summarise that fluctuating levels of hormones run in parallel with increased feelings of pain, exhaustion and irritable bowel syndrome (3 significant symptoms) and they must therefore be a contributing cause in some way.
When it comes to serotonin (a brain chemical), it appears that women also have a significantly greater sensitivity to changes in it’s levels. The menstrual cycle, menopause or childbirth can all cause large swings in serotonin levels, leading to mood swings, fatigue, depression and extremely painful ‘tender points’.
To further back this up, a 2015 study in the Brazilian Journal Of Rheumatology found that significantly more women with fibromyalgia reported extreme lower back and abdominal pain from two days before menstruation.
The Final Word –
There is a vast amount of information that is still unknown about Fibromyalgia. This is no different when it comes to the symptoms of fibromyalgia in women.
However, although many of the reasons why are unclear, it does seem certain that not only do more symptoms affect women than men, but that they are more severely felt too.
This is true of a number of chronic pain conditions and is down to a number of factors, not least the increased hormonal fluctuations during menstruation.
Check out our other articles on treatments and diet, to see what you can do to reduce the effect of those symptoms.
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References Used –
1. Various. Definition Of Fibromyalgia. Wikipedia
2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Fibromyalgia. Office On Women’s Health (www.womenshealth.gov)
3. The National Fibromyalgia Association. Prevalence. www.fmaware.org
4. E.J. Bartley, R.B.Fillingim. (2013) Sex differences in pain: a brief review of clinical and experimental findings. British Journal Of Anaesthesia.
5. The National Fibromyalgia Association. Women and pain: A Focus on Fibromyalgia. www.fmaware.org
6. Rabbi Terzi, Hasan Terzi, Ahmet Kale. (2104) Evaluation of the relationship between premenstrual syndrome and primary dysmenorrhoea in women with fibromyalgia. Brazilian Journal of Rheumatology.
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