Fibromyalgia and Aging

Fibromyalgia and aging

Millions of people across the United States suffer from what is known as “invisible disability.” On the outside, they appear to be just fine. No one would ever know that they have something very difficult happening inside their body. That’s the case with fibromyalgia, a condition that can lead to debilitating pain and extreme fatigue.

This invisible illness is not an autoimmune disease, nor is it an inflammatory condition, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Rather, it is believed to be a problem with the central nervous system or brain chemicals, which affects the way the body processes pain signals.1


Though the CDC says that fibromyalgia affects four million adults in the United States, that number could be much higher, given that fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed or even dismissed by physicians.2 The symptoms might be vague and transient, which can lead to someone being told “it’s all in your head.” Cognitive behavioral therapy does seem to help those with fibromyalgia; but it’s important to note that this type of therapy can help someone cope with the pain and fatigue of the condition, not necessarily “cure” anyone of it.


The Basics of Fibromyalgia


According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, fibromyalgia is “a chronic (long-lasting) disorder that causes pain and tenderness throughout the body, as well as fatigue and trouble sleeping.”3 The pain might be very low-level and vague, coming and going from day to day or even hour to hour. Or it might be an aching, burning, or throbbing pain throughout the body that rarely offers a reprieve.


Though doctors don’t know what causes fibromyalgia, they do know that those who have it tend to be much more sensitive to pain.


Extreme fatigue is a hallmark of this condition. That might be due to the constant, unrelenting pain a person is always fighting, or might be a result of the condition itself. Trouble sleeping is also an issue, for the same potential reasons.


Other symptoms of fibromyalgia can include:


·        Issues with the muscles and joints, including stiffness, tenderness, and tingling.

·        Tingling in the arms and legs.

·        A significant sensitivity to light, noise, temperature, and odors.

·        Bloating, constipation, and other gastrointestinal upset.

·        Difficulty with concentration or memory, or feeling as though you struggle to think clearly. This is also known as “fibro fog.”


Most of these symptoms can lead to other consequences, such as a higher risk of falls. That’s why turning to senior alert systems is so important when diagnosed with fibromyalgia – or if you simply suspect that you might have it. Medical alert technology can help you stay safe and secure while you deal with the illness that is challenging your life on a daily basis.


Risk Factors for Fibromyalgia


Women tend to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia more often than men. And while it can affect those of any age, the odds of developing it increase as you get older. It affects a wide group of individuals with no regard to race or ethnicity. It does seem to run in families, but it can also affect those who have no family history of it at all.


Other factors that might increase your risk of fibromyalgia include obesity, repetitive movements (such as a job that requires you to lift something over and over all day), a serious viral infection or other illness, and stressful traumatic events, such as those that can lead to PTSD.


Doctors have also discovered that if you suffer from certain other diseases, you are more likely to develop fibromyalgia. These might include:


·        Osteoarthritis

·        Rheumatoid arthritis

·        Lupus

·        Irritable bowel syndrome

·        Chronic back pain

·        Ankylosing spondylitis (arthritis of the spine)

·        Depression or anxiety


If you have any of these problems and begin to experience unexplained pain, fatigue, and trouble with sleep, your doctor might suspect you have fibromyalgia.


Testing and Treatment for Fibromyalgia


Part of the frustration of fibromyalgia is that it’s tough to diagnose. It is usually considered a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that a doctor comes to the conclusion of fibromyalgia by ruling out other problems. This can be achieved through a thorough medical history review, a physical examination, and bloodwork, imaging, and other tests that can rule out other diseases and conditions.


However, remember that fibromyalgia is more common among those who do have some other conditions, such as forms of arthritis. So you could be diagnosed with arthritis, lupus, or some other disease, and still have fibromyalgia as a separate condition.


There is no cure for fibromyalgia. But there are things you can do to make the condition more manageable.


·        Cognitive behavioral therapy. This is usually a front-line treatment for the condition. CBT and other therapies can affect how you think about and relate to pain, as well as to the overall challenges of a chronic condition. Therapy gives you the emotional and mental tools to better handle the physical challenges. This alone can make you feel better, which can make the symptoms of the condition easier to handle.

·        Medications. Your doctor can prescribe medications that help with the pain. These might include everything from a daily aspirin or doses of ibuprofen to narcotics. Injections of corticosteroids in certain areas of the body, such as the lower back or joints, might help some people. Medications that improve sleep and boost your energy levels might also help. You might be referred to a pain specialist to help you find the appropriate medication regimen.

·        Physical therapies. Exercise can help keep the muscles and joints supple, which can reduce the pain someone with fibromyalgia might feel. Gentle movement therapies, like stretching or tai chi, as well as water aerobics, have been known to help ease the symptoms. You might also work with a physical therapist who can give you advice and instruction on how to move in ways that reduce pain, improve posture, and ease symptoms.

·        Alternative therapies. Many with fibromyalgia find some relief through various alternative therapies. Massage therapy is a very popular option that has shown impressive results for some. Other therapies, such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, and even hypnosis could be helpful.


Before embarking on any therapy or choosing any over-the-counter supplements that have been touted as a treatment for fibromyalgia, talk to your doctor. You might have other chronic conditions that make certain therapies or medications a bad idea for you – and in fact, might even make the situation worse.


Staying Safe and Feeling Better with Fibromyalgia


When you’re living with unrelenting fatigue and pain, things that you once took for granted, like how easy it can be to move around your home, can become difficult. There are a few things you can do to help make life easier.


·        Take steps for safety. Pain in your joints, especially those in your hips and knees, can make it tough to move around properly. As you move more gingerly, your odds of falling increase. And for seniors, falls are serious business. The CDC reports that more than one in four seniors fall down at least once every year.4 That’s taking into account the general population of those over the age of 65, but studies have clearly shown that those who have certain chronic conditions or pain tend to fall more often. Using a medical alert necklace can help you avoid the dire consequences that can result from a fall that leaves you lying on the floor, immobile, and waiting for help to arrive.

·        Aging in place home modifications. Making your home safer means that you can lower your risk of falls. So take care with the things that might literally trip you up, such as keeping electrical cords tucked away, avoiding the use of throw rugs, investing in non-skid flooring, and making sure your home is very well-lit. Use hand rails when going up and down the stairs, and consider installing grab bars in the bathroom, especially in the shower. And as you make these changes, a button alarm that you wear around your neck or wrist (even in the shower) is a vital companion to keep you safe.

·        Get regular exercise. Though you might not feel like you want to exercise at all, the physical movement can often reduce pain and ease the fatigue you might feel. It could also help you sleep better. But keep in mind that you shouldn’t push it too hard – you need to conserve energy, so start out with low-impact exercises for short periods of time and build up from there (under your doctor’s supervision, of course).

·        Create a relaxing environment. You have enough to worry about with the things that are happening inside your body; make sure that the world outside of you is calm enough to allow you to relax. This can especially help with sleep. To that end, create routines, such as going to bed and getting up at the same time every day and avoiding the use of electronic devices for the hour before bed.

·        Consider your diet. Are there things that make your fibromyalgia worse? Consider caffeine – you might not feel as though it’s making things worse, but if it disrupts your sleep even more or makes you anxious, then you might want to stop reaching for the coffee. Don’t be afraid to enjoy comfort foods that make you feel better, but do so in moderation, with the reminder that obesity is not only a risk factor for fibromyalgia but could make the condition worse if you already have it.

·        Take medications as directed. Those with fibromyalgia often have other chronic conditions. Keeping those conditions under control can help with the pain and fatigue you’re feeling. For instance, taking medications that lower your blood sugar and keep diabetes under control can help you avoid diabetic neuropathy. Certain types of diabetic neuropathy can lead to serious pain, which can then add to the pain you’re feeling from fibromyalgia. Talk to your doctor about the proper medications for any medical condition and take them exactly as directed.


Finally, perhaps one of the most valuable tips for handling fibromyalgia is to reach out for support. A support network filled with others who are dealing with the same thing can go a long way toward peace of mind, and that alone can make you feel better. Learn all you can about the condition, teach those around you about what it’s like, and talk to those who have walked a mile in your shoes. Whether you find them online or in person, an understanding listener can make a world of difference.