More than 50% of people with fibromyalgia suffer from fibromyalgia headaches. The similarities between headache and fibromyalgia are an important key to both diagnosis and treatment. Understanding the symptoms of fibromyalgia headaches may help you find relief from these painful episodes. This post covers the symptoms and causes of fibromyalgia headaches, along with natural and interventional treatment approaches.
What is fibromyalgia?
Researchers have been plucking away at the mysterious origins of fibromyalgia for decades. And although many uncertainties remain, the American Pain Society (APS) says the condition is now classified as a lifelong disorder of the central nervous system.
Fibromyalgia expert Dr. Daniel Clauw told an APS panel:
“Most people with this condition have lifelong histories of chronic pain throughout their bodies… The condition can be hard to diagnose if one isn’t familiar with classic symptoms because there isn’t a single cause and no outward signs.”
Ultimately, scientists believe that fibromyalgia stems from abnormalities in how the brain processes pain and other information coming in from outside stimuli. While most patients get a diagnosis at middle age, researchers increasingly believe that these nervous system disturbances begin much sooner.
In 2013, APS reported that one in six adults with chronic pain had experienced pain as a child or adolescent. As adults, these patients reported widespread pain with nerve dysfunction that affected physical and cognitive functioning—which researchers said fills the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia.
Who suffers from fibromyalgia headaches?
Everyone suffers from headache at some point in their lives, but for those with fibromyalgia, the pain can be especially cruel. Headaches tend to amplify other symptoms of fibromyalgia, making the pain more difficult to bear. Patients who suffer from chronic fibromyalgia headaches report more incidence of depression and higher levels of pain.
Fibromyalgia sufferers report three major types of headache:
- Muscle tension headaches
- A combination of the two (migraines as a result of muscle tension)
What does a fibromyalgia headache feel like?
Every one of the millions of people who suffer from fibromyalgia headaches experience them differently. However, these are some common fibromyalgia headache symptoms, including:
- Pulsing, sharp, or aching pain
- Pain on one side of the face only, extending into the eye
- Head pain that radiates into the neck and shoulder muscles
- Pain along the tender points on the back of your head and neck
- Sensitivity to light, sound, or smells
Your best bet is to start tracking your symptoms now. Once you have more information about how and what your pain feels like, you can bring it to your doctor for a better diagnosis and treatment approach.
What causes fibromyalgia headaches?
What causes these fibromyalgia headaches? Headache as a result of fibromyalgia, or fibromyalgia as a cause of headaches? Headache and fibromyalgia are often too closely related to tell. For example, muscle tension headaches are just as they sound. These headaches are caused by contracting the muscles, clenching or holding them. This eventually results in pain that radiates up into the head and neck. Pain can spread all the way around the skull and into the face.
Fibro patients also have a high incidence of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). This condition causes pain in the entire head. Those with TMJ clench their jaws and grind their teeth, even in sleep, resulting in pain and, in severe cases, dislocation of the jaw. This type of clenching is the primary cause of muscle tension headaches. However, these headaches can also result from tension in other areas of the body where fibromyalgia patients feel pain.
Migraines, on the other hand, are vascular in nature and understood to be caused by constriction of blood vessels in the head. Migraines have many different causes, but fatigue, stress, and other illness are three common ones. These are also common side effects of fibromyalgia.
Sleep disorders are common in fibro patients, and lack of sleep is often cited as both a primary cause of migraine and something that exacerbates the pain. A low level of serotonin is another cause of both migraine headaches and fibromyalgia. Some research indicates that because this is a cause of fibromyalgia, migraines are both a symptom of fibro and a separate illness. Low levels of magnesium in the body is similar: a potential cause for both migraine headache and fibromyalgia.
The combination headaches that result from muscle tension and a lack of certain chemicals in the body (serotonin for one, as discussed above) can be brutal for a patient with fibromyalgia.
Unable to rest or relax and feeling pain in the whole body, that pain then creeps up into the head and can be accompanied by nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to light, making this type of headache particularly debilitating.
Fibromyalgia stems from disturbances in the nervous system and brain
While pain from fibromyalgia may be felt throughout the body, the pain originates from the brain and spinal cord, according to APS. Researchers believe patients’ brains don’t correctly process pain or other types of sensory-related information.
Any time patients report widespread, musculoskeletal pain that’s not caused by inflammation or an injury, doctors should consider fibromyalgia as a cause, recommends Clauw. He adds:
“Because pain pathways throughout the body are amplified in fibromyalgia patients, pain can occur anywhere, so chronic headaches, visceral pain, and sensory hyper-responsiveness are common in people with this painful condition.”
Misfirings in the central nervous system typically make people with fibromyalgia feel significant pain at a mere touch—the same touch that would barely register on a patient with a normally functioning nervous system. It could also explain why fibromyalgia headaches are so predominant.
Research published in Arthritis and Rheumatology investigated this phenomenon through a series of brain scans. Scientists found the scans showed that fibromyalgia patients’ brains were less responsive than normal in the visual and hearing areas, but more active in regions related to sensory integration.
Other areas of the brain altered by fibromyalgia include those related to pleasure and pain, according to additional research from Arthritis and Rheumatology. Researchers looked at magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of patients’ brains after showing two types of visual cues: one that caused subjects to anticipate pain and a second to anticipate pain relief.
In response to both stimuli, subjects with fibromyalgia showed impaired cognitive responses in multiple sections of the brain. This happened in those related to processing pain, cognition, and sensory signals. This means that while people with fibromyalgia are not only more sensitive to pain and normal, everyday stimuli like temperature, they also have diminished ability to self-regulate.
Stress plays a role in development of fibromyalgia
Research published in The Journal of Pain found the way stress interacts with the brain plays a role in the development of fibromyalgia. Scientists studied the effects of stress on the hippocampus, a center of the brain with a major role in emotion and the nervous system.
The hippocampus is small, but important, and stress also affects it. Scientists analyzed the brains of 16 people with fibromyalgia and found that chronic stress resulted in an overactive hippocampus that could be linked to a greater sensitivity to pain.
Stress has the ability to disrupt the nervous system functioning of the hippocampus and interfere with pain processing and a healthy stress response, researchers said. Since stress is so related to headaches to begin with, this may be another clue into why fibromyalgia headaches occur.
What causes fibromyalgia?
To better understand fibromyalgia headaches, it’s important to understand the causes and risk factors of fibromyalgia. Yes, it originates in the central nervous system, but why do some people suffer from it and not others?
Unfortunately, the causes of fibromyalgia are not concrete. This understanding can be disheartening for the newly-diagnosed patient who is just looking for answers. Unlike a disease that is characterized by a set of known causes, fibromyalgia is classified as a disorder. This means that although there are a collection of symptoms that are often concurrent, there is no single traceable answer to the question “What causes fibromyalgia?”
There are a few potential causes of fibromyalgia. They almost function more like risk factors than they do as causes, as those with fibromyalgia generally fit into at least one of these categories. In general, those with fibromyalgia receive pain signals and process them differently than do those without this disorder. A number of different factors can influence this.
People with fibromyalgia generally have chemical imbalances in the brain that may lead to improper pain processing and hypersensitivity to pain. Serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine are present in lower levels in people with fibromyalgia. These chemicals play an important role in sleep, mood, and appetite regulation.
Additionally, these three hormones govern the response to stress and stressful situations. Changes in cortisol levels, the hormone that increases during stressful situations, or sustained cortisol levels, as in chronic stress, may also contribute to the development of fibromyalgia.
It is hard to know if sleep disorders are among the causes of fibromyalgia or if fibromyalgia causes sleep disorders. One thing is certain – these two conditions are intertwined and most often present together. People who are unable to achieve deep sleep are more likely to feel pain more intensely. Researchers are examining whether lack of sleep is a primary cause of fibromyalgia.
While there does not seem to be a definitive genetic link to fibromyalgia, this condition does tend to run in families. Children of mothers with fibromyalgia are particularly susceptible, but it is hard to separate genetic factors from environmental ones.
It may be that the genetic link makes a person more likely to develop fibromyalgia after a triggering event than a person who experiences the same trigger but without the genetic influence.
Physical or emotional trauma
There is some evidence that what causes fibromyalgia is a physical or emotional trauma. These can include injuries due to car accidents or other physical harm. Emotional trauma can include any of the following:
- Witnessing a traumatic event
- Living in a dangerous environment
- Serving in the military in a war zone
- Sexual or physical assault or abuse
How the body processes these events and transforms them into widespread pain remains a mystery to researchers and doctors, but it is very clear that physical or emotional trauma can be one of the primary causes of fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia can be caused by other illnesses or infections. Those with autoimmune disorders or other disorders that cause infection seem to have an increased likelihood of developing fibromyalgia. Diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis are three conditions that are closely associated with fibromyalgia.
There is some research that ties the presence of the herpes simplex-1 virus, the type of herpes virus associated with cold sores, to fibromyalgia, but that research is in its infancy. Regardless of type, viral infection does seem to be one of the potential causes of fibromyalgia.
Between 75 and 90% of all fibromyalgia patients are women, which leads doctors to believe that what causes fibromyalgia is largely due to hormones. Estrogen and progesterone work in opposite directions in the brain, with the former stimulating it and the latter relaxing it. When one of these hormones is out of balance, fibromyalgia may develop.
Women between the ages of 20 and 50 are most often diagnosed. These are primary child-bearing years with the influx of pregnancy hormones, followed by the onset of perimenopause and menopause. As women age, their chances of a fibromyalgia diagnosis increase.
What are risk factors for fibromyalgia?
Risk factors for fibromyalgia include:
- Gender: Men do develop fibromyalgia but in much smaller numbers than women. This could be due to the factors outlined above, but men may be underdiagnosed due to cultural factors. It is generally more culturally accepted in the U.S. for women to express pain. Men are expected to be stoic about pain. There may be many more cases of fibromyalgia in men, particularly among returning veterans and first responders.
- Genetics: If your mother had fibromyalgia, you are more likely to contract it yourself.
- Illness or injury: Viral infections or other traumatic physical injury can trigger fibromyalgia.
- Traumatic event: The death of a close family member or being a witness to violence can trigger fibromyalgia.
Diagnosis of fibromyalgia can be complicated. If you have any of the above risk factors and experience pain in at least 11 of 18 tender points that lasts longer than three months and is recurring and unresponsive to traditional analgesics, talk to your doctor.
How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia diagnostic criteria include widespread pain, fatigue, and other associated symptoms. Additional symptoms include morning stiffness, tingling or numbness in the extremities, headaches, disturbed sleep, and fibro fog—which is disruption in cognitive function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the well-labeled criteria, the symptoms of fibromyalgia still tend to be vague. No objective test exists, leaving proper diagnosis up to physicians. Unfortunately, not all doctors are well versed in fibromyalgia, making it important for patients to find the right doctor to receive the most appropriate diagnosis. Fibromyalgia affects every one of the roughly five million patients, mostly women, in a slightly different way.
Because fibromyalgia symptoms are largely self-reported, doctors and the general public weren’t sure how to respond when patients first began complaining of widespread pain. Without abnormal test results or something definitive to help guide doctors to an appropriate diagnosis, skepticism reigned over medical opinion for many years. Critics believed people were making up the condition or imagining the pain.
Finally in 1981, data proving the existence of tender points, which are a commonly reported symptom, was released, according to the journal Current Pain and Headache Reports.
Since then researchers have focused on unveiling the condition’s mysteries. They hope that finding more information about fibromyalgia’s origins lead to better treatments. Unfortunately, the painful condition is not very responsive to medication. Doctors are now learning that resistance to medication may be a consequence of the very nervous system abnormalities causing the disorder.
How can I treat my fibromyalgia headaches?
Finally, if you’re suffering from fibromyalgia headaches, you want to find pain relief. Many patients with fibromyalgia experience better results with drug-free treatment methods, Clauw adds. He says:
“The majority of patients with fibromyalgia can see improvement in their symptoms and lead normal lives with the right medications and extensive use of non-drug therapies.”
The developing idea that fibromyalgia pain originates deep within the central nervous system explains why opioids are generally not effective to reduce associated pain. That’s because opioids do nothing to target the source of pain, involving brain neurotransmitters. Clauw says opioids may even worsen pain in some patients with fibromyalgia.
The best medications for fibromyalgia are typically those that interfere with affected neurotransmitters, like serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly prescribed to people with depression. Other methods of treatment involve drug-free options like:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Biofeedback therapy
- Stress reduction
- Avoiding headache triggers
- Dietary changes
Interventional treatments for severe fibromyalgia headaches may include:
You can find even more treatment approaches at “25 Fibromyalgia Treatment Options To Beat Your Pain.” A pain specialist can help you develop a treatment approach if you’re suffering from severe fibromyalgia headaches. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.