Fibromyalgia is a neurological disorder that affects approximately 12 million people in the U.S. This chronic disorder causes aches and pains in the body that are severe enough to impact normal activity and disrupt sleep. If those symptoms weren’t enough, however, fibromyalgia also often causes mental health issues for many patients. It can lead to cases of depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders. Here’s what you need to know.
What is fibromyalgia?
A person with fibromyalgia may feel pain in the muscles, tissues, joints, and tendons in different areas of the body. Although most of the population has a spot or two on their body that may be more sensitive than others, people with fibromyalgia often experience excruciating tenderness in very specific locations that are spread across their body. Tenderness is generally mirrored on both sides of the body and is located at nine specific points.
As if this intense pain in the body is not enough, the chronic pain of fibromyalgia is often linked to mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Consider this:
- 62% of fibromyalgia patients will experience depression in their lifetime
- 56% will experience anxiety
Mental health issues and fibromyalgia obviously connect. Finding out why fibromyalgia and depression and other mental illnesses are so common is important for appropriate treatments for the condition.
Other common fibromyalgia symptoms
Symptoms of fibromyalgia also include the following:
- Pain and tenderness in the body
- Extreme fatigue
- Cognitive dysfunction (also known as “fibro fog”)
- Digestive issues
These symptoms tend to be chronic, with their severity increasing and decreasing from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour. You can learn more by watching the following video about fibromyalgia.
Why are fibromyalgia and depression so common?
Dealing with the chronic, daily symptoms can be stressful, but the stress hormone cortisol can actually drop precipitously for those with fibromyalgia. A corresponding drop in production of the “feel-good” hormone serotonin creates the perfect storm of skewed hormones and chronic pain to increase the chance of depression and anxiety.
Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., medical director of The Fibromyalgia & Fatigue Centers has this to say about what’s going on in the body:
“Biochemically, depression is very different in [people with] fibromyalgia than otherwise. In fibromyalgia, it is often associated with an underactive adrenal function [a low cortisol level], whereas depression [in a non-fibromyalgia population] is associated with a high cortisol level.”
And just as lack sleep can exacerbate the pain of fibromyalgia, so, too, can it deepen depression or heighten anxiety. This may manifest itself as shortness of breath in anxiety and a fluttery feeling in the chest, or malaise and lack of interest in depression. For some, lack of sleep and fibromyalgia come together in a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, (CFS) further complicating treatment of both conditions. Depression shares common underlying causes with CFS, but the two are separate conditions requiring separate treatments.
Some of the connection between mental health issues and fibromyalgia may lie in the fact that many people surrounding the fibromyalgia patient just don’t think it’s that bad. Thorsten Giesecke, MD, is a member of the University of Michigan research team that is using state-of-the-art technology to study fibromyalgia. He notes:
“People still doubt fibromyalgia is a disease. Previously, we found that fibromyalgia patients really do have increased central pain processing. Now we can show this is not affected by depression. Something is wrong here, and it is not at all connected with depression.”
But the fact remains that people with fibromyalgia are three times as likely to be diagnosed with depression. This diagnosis doesn’t necessarily increase the pain of fibromyalgia, but it may increase a patient’s perception of their own health.