Fibromyalgia - symptoms and treatment

Suffer from aching joints and sore muscles, even after zero exercise?

Kimberly, 28, had been feeling achy and tired for months. She attributed it to her 18 month old baby boy and his nocturnal habits. It wasn’t until she was overcome with pain one morning after lifting her son from his crib, that she realised something was very wrong. Sound familiar? You might be suffering from the mysterious condition called fibromyalgia


Fibromyalgia is characterised by a number of symptoms:

  • Pain – usually felt as a muscular aching, stiffness and tiredness that does not necessarily coincide with activity
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Irritable bowel

Dr. Daniel Lewis, rheumatologist and founder of the Lewis Institute for Health and Wellbeing says that fibromyalgia can have a big impact on a person’s day-to-day functioning.  “Often sufferers become physically unfit and are unable to perform usual physical and mental tasks.”

It’s difficult to diagnose fibromyalgia, since there is no conclusive test. A medical practitioner must assess a patient’s history, reported symptoms and exclude all other causes of chronic pain. Rheumatologists, physiotherapists and nutritionists are among the numerous health care professionals that can then assist in the establishment of a treatment plan. It’s important for patients to educate themselves on the condition, so they get the most out of the advice they’re given.  “Once you know the ins and outs of the condition, it’s easier to accept it and to be at ease with what’s going on in your body,” Lewis explains.

The causes of fibromyalgia are largely unknown, but its onset is believed to coincide with a particularly stressful period of life such as a major illness, an accident, or having a new baby, in Kimberly’s case. Most research suggests the symptoms are caused by overactivity in the pain and stress hormone systems of the body.  Luckily however, the symptoms cause no permanent damage.

The most effective approaches to treatment are therapeutic and focus on alleviating symptoms and improving quality of life. There are medications that can assist with pain and fatigue such as painkillers and antidepressants, but these should only be used as part of a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. 

Stress has a particularly powerful grip on the life of someone with fibromyalgia. One of the best coping techniques is to restore calm to your everyday life, by controlling stress where you can.

  • Meditate – Set aside time each day to be still and quiet.
  • Don’t dwell on the past – Live in the moment and focus on what you can do to control your condition.
  • Request accommodations at work – A comfy chair could change your life!
  • Find support wherever you can.

“Research has shown that changing the way you think can change the way you feel,” Lewis says. “Controlling stress with meditation and a positive attitude can give you control of your mind and this should have an impact on your overall wellbeing.”

Regular exercise can improve the body’s response to stress as well as enhance endocrine function, which helps the body to better process pain and regulate sleep patterns. Lauren Baker, physiotherapist and consumer services co-coordinator for Arthritis Victoria, believes that maintaining fitness is essential to those with fibromyalgia.  “Staying fit helps ward off conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, that come with being inactive,” she explains.

  • Start slowly – Begin with gentle stretching or swimming and be patient as you build up strength and endurance.
  • Create a routine – Exercise needs to be regular.
  • Don’t limit yourself – There are plenty of low impact aerobic and strength training exercises out there; mix them up so as not to get bored.

Listen to your body – Don’t force yourself through extreme pain. 

“An exercise regime should always be accompanied by good nutrition,” says Baker. “This can be particularly effective to reduce pain and fatigue in fibromyalgia sufferers.”

  • Maintain balance –  Incorporating lots of fresh meat, fish and vegetables will improve your energy levels. 
  • Personalise your diet – Foods affect everyone differently, so try to cut out things you think intensify your symptoms. 
  • Avoid – Alcohol and caffeine, as well as spicy or fried foods, which can disrupt sleep by causing indigestion and increasing the body’s fluid production.


It’s a catch 22. A poor night’s sleep can exacerbate the symptoms of fibromyalgia, while its painful symptoms can make it difficult to sleep. Dr. Greg Tooley, co-director of the Deakin University Integrative Health Research Unit, says you should, “Adopt a regular sleep-wake pattern that incorporates a relaxation ritual like a hot bath or reading.”

Dr. Tooley says the lack of knowledge and public understanding of fibromyalgia can leave sufferers feeling socially isolated. “Their desire to go out is reduced and they tend to rely only on close family and a few sympathetic friends for companionship, which can drive them away from the well-rounded lifestyle that is so important for sufferers to maintain.” So rather than losing contact, find activities that are easier for you to enjoy with your friends, like going out for lunch instead of dinner to avoid a late night.

Once you feel more in control of your mind and body, having fibromyalgia will not seem nearly as daunting. Remember, it’s not the end of the world – with patience and a positive attitude you can look forward to improved health, fitness and a pain-free future.

For support and information on fibromyalgia, contact Arthritis Australia on 1800 011 041, or visit The Lewis Institute of Health and Wellbeing in Melbourne, run seminars and distribute the DVD Living with Fibromyalgia: Finding Your Balance, available at NH

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