There exist in this world several conditions that are notable not just for the pain and suffering they cause to the patient and their loved ones but also for the fact that to the outside world, everything seems okay. These are referred to as “invisible diseases,” and together they affect 235 million people worldwide. Your neighbor, the person using a handicapped tag but with no visible impairment, your child’s teacher: all of these people may be suffering without scars. Today we take a look at three such diseases, each one of which is marked by an awareness day in May.
Fibromyalgia counts among its worldwide ranks approximately 210 million people. This year’s theme for Fibromyalgia Awareness Day is “Your Voice Matters: You Make Fibromyalgia Visible.”
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Fibromyalgia is a pain condition that affects between 2 and 10% of the population in the U.S., generally more women than men at a ratio of 9:1. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed by the presence of pain in 18 specific tender points in the body. This pain can be accompanied by deep fatigue and poor focus or concentration. Many fibromyalgia patients also suffer from mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, both of which can exacerbate pain.
Diagnosis of fibromyalgia is often made by eliminating what it isn’t before discovering what it is. Blood tests can be run for diseases with similar symptoms (including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus). In addition to the symptoms above, people suffering from fibromyalgia can also experience the following symptoms:
- Pelvic pain
- Irritable bowel syndrome (or other gut disorders like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s)
- Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD)
- Migraines and tension headaches
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
- Sleep disturbances
There is no known cure for fibromyalgia, but there are ways to address symptoms. There is some research that indicates that float tanks are remarkably effective for fibromyalgia pain, relieving stress and promoting deep relaxation and stress relief. Whole body vibration, a technique where a patient’s body is vibrated with the use of a machine, has also shown some pain-relieving properties. Relief may occur because of the proven benefit of exercise to fibromyalgia patients, and in this way patients can get passive exercise. Many patients are reluctant to exercise for fear that they will increase their pain, but regular exercise has been shown to help with fibromyalgia symptoms.
Another way to help deal with fibromyalgia symptoms is to realize you are not alone. If there are people in your life who have trouble understanding, turn to communities online that may offer you support. Blogs and chronic pain forums can help you cope and offer tips and suggestions for dealing with your very worst days.
Find an event near you for Fibromyalgia Awareness Day, and help bring fibromyalgia out of the darkness!
International CFS/ME Awareness Day
Also falling on May 12th, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, International CFS/ME Awareness Day is designed to raise awareness of debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome. As its name indicates, chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by extreme exhaustion lasting longer than six months but can also be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Depression or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Post-exertional malaise (extreme exhaustion that occurs after even minor physical activity)
- Poor memory and “brain fog” (similar to the “fibro fog” of fibromyalgia)
Chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t about just being sleepy, and it does not have a traceable cause (e.g., a new baby disrupting sleep patterns or extra duties at a job). People who suffer from CFS/ME may be unable to hold a job or parent effectively. Driving and other daily tasks like shopping, cooking, and cleaning may be impossible or result in bedrest for many days afterwards.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is two to four times as likely to affect women as men, and it occurs most frequently in the mid-40s to late 50s. Because of this, there is some evidence that the development of chronic fatigue syndrome may be related to hormone imbalance. Other causes may be certain viral infections or autoimmune disorders. Hormone replacement is one treatment option. Others include:
- Lifestyle changes such as graded exercise therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy
- Prescription sleeping pills
- Complementary medicine such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga
This year, join in spreading the word on International CFS/ME Awareness Day by promoting the event through social media, including the official Facebook page.
May 10th is World Lupus Day, a day when people all over the globe come together to raise awareness and call for increased research efforts to fight this mysterious disease. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system loses the ability to tell good from bad. A healthy immune system produces antibodies that help fight off infections, bacteria, and viruses that make us sick. An immune system confused by lupus sees every part of the body as potentially dangerous and essentially attacks itself.
Common symptoms of lupus include:
- Inflammation and swelling
- Rashes all over the skin
- Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light)
- Ulcers in the mouth or nose
- Painful or swollen joints
- Difficulty or pain when breathing deeply
- Fever and headache
Many of these symptoms are similar to symptoms of other conditions, including Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid problems, and other heart, lung, or muscle disorders. When diagnosing lupus, doctors will look at multiple lab tests to rule out other conditions, also carefully evaluating symptoms and genetic history. Lupus is more common in African America, Latino, and Asian women and is generally diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40. While there is no cure, there are treatments that can ease symptoms and improve quality of life.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Can ease swelling and fever
- Immunosuppressants: Used in serious cases to control immune response
- Corticosteroids: May counter inflammation and swelling in joints
- Lifestyle changes: Healthy diet that includes anti-inflammatory food and regular exercise while eliminating alcohol and smoking
- Alternative medicine: Supplements like fish oil and vitamin D have been shown to help some patients
These three conditions don’t have to remain invisible. Fibromyalgia, CFS/ME, and lupus affect millions worldwide. How can you take some time this May to educate yourself, raise awareness, and shed light on these invisible diseases?
Image by Charles via Flickr