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Living with fibromyalgia

Few look forward to getting older, and that is largely because of the toll the aging process can take on the human body. While certain conditions may be largely associated with the senior population, middle age women are paying more and more attention to fibromyalgia, a condition that affects roughly 4 percent of the American population and 1 percent of those living in England. Statistics Canada indicates that 390,000 Canadians have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

While those figures are considerable, there may be even more people living with fibromyalgia. That's because fibromyalgia, despite its prevalence, remains somewhat mysterious. What is known is that the illness primarily affects women and is characterized by widespread pain throughout the body.

Those with fibromyalgia experience pain in response to stimuli that for other people would not be perceived as painful. Experts surmise that elevated levels of a particular nerve chemical signal, called substance P, could be to blame for those who are affected. There is also evidence that more nerve growth factor in spinal fluid, as well as a decreased amount of the brain chemical serotonin, could be other influences.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease says that stressful or traumatic events, such as car accidents, illness, certain diseases, and repetitive injuries, could be linked to the onset of fibromyalgia.

The pain of fibromyalgia may be widespread, and often affects the neck, shoulders, arms, upper back, chest, and buttocks. There may be tender points that elicit more pain than other areas, clues that the condition is in fact fibromyalgia. Other symptoms include fatigue, not enough non-REM sleep, anxiety, forgetfulness, and irritable bowel syndrome.

To receive a proper diagnosis, it is important for individuals to discuss all of their symptoms with a physician. Each patient is unique, and the symptoms may come and go.

The Mayo Clinic identifies certain risk factors that increase the liklihood a person will experience fibromyalgia.

* Gender: Females are diagnosed more than men. It is believed that female reproductive hormones may play a role in pain perception.

* Rheumatic disease: A history of arthritis or lupus could increase the risk of fibromyalgia.

* Family history: Members of the family who have fibromyalgia may pass the condition on through genetics.

Getting diagnosed may require a series of tests and questions. The American College of Rheumatology developed certain criteria for a diagnosis. These include widespread pain that lasts at least 3 months, in addition to 11 tender points on the body out of a possible 18. Some doctors will diagnose it with less stringent criteria.

Treatment is a customized approach depending on symptoms and may include analgesics that reduce pain, antidepressants that help with fatigue and sleeplessness and anti-seizure drugs that may also reduce pain can be prescribed. Physical and mental therapy can also alleviate stress, which seems to exacerbate symptoms. Some people find success with the use of alternative therapies, such as yoga, massage and acupuncture, to alleviate pain.

Although there is no cure for fibromyalgia, getting an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan in place can help alleviate the multitude of symptoms that seem to accompany the illness.