It’s a mysterious illness that may have been suffered by Florence Nightingale and by Job in the Bible. For decades, patients were told there was nothing wrong with them, or that it was all in their head, even though their debilitating symptoms included aches and pains, waking up tired, difficulty thinking clearly, and suffering with headaches, depression and anxiety.
Brief periods of mental or physical exertion left them exhausted. And while their pains might migrate from one area of the body to another at any given time, there were 11 points on the body that were always more tender than other areas.
This illness has been studied since the 1800’s, and identified by a variety of names, including muscular rheumatism, fibrositis, and hysterical paroxysm. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) developed a set of diagnostic criteria for doing fibromyalgia research, which opened the door for the term “fibromyalgia” to become more commonly used.
Fibromyalgia is the most common musculoskeletal condition after osteoarthritis, yet it is still widely misunderstood and misdiagnosed. More than 12 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, and women are 10 times more likely to have the medical disorder than men. Fibromyalgia often comes hand-in-hand with a condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
There is no simple laboratory test to diagnose fibromyalgia, but the ACR diagnostic criteria includes widespread pain throughout the body for at least three months, defined as being on both sides of the body, as well as above and below the waist.
Common symptoms include:
- Severe fatigue
- Nonrefreshing sleep
- Lack of physical endurance, even after minor exertion
- Pain and stiffness in muscles and joints, particularly in specific “tender points”
- Flu-like physical aches and pains
- Weight gain
- Digestive problems
- Mental fog or confusion, often called “fibro fog”
- Poor concentration
- Sore throat
- Depression and anxiety
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is caused by a malfunction in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps to regulate hormones and the nervous system. Because the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, also located in the brain, work together, they may share the same underlying problem. And while the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are separate and distinct, treatment of some common issues can bring relief in both cases.
Located in every cell in our body is a tiny component called mitochondria that serves as the energy factory for our cells. Mitochondria can stop working properly if the patient is dealing with chronic bacterial, viral and fungal infections or nutritional deficiencies, or has been exposed to environmental toxins and pesticides. When the mitochondria aren’t working properly, the hypothalamus and pituitary are affected, and fatigue is often one of the symptoms.
Two of the more common hormonal deficiencies implicated in fibromyalgia are low thyroid hormone and a deficiency in an adrenal hormone called cortisol. With either of these hormones, a deficiency can result in exhaustion and fibromyalgia symptoms. Thankfully, both of these hormones can be supplemented safely based on a patient’s needs.
Infections can either trigger or contribute to the symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. These may include viruses such as Epstein Barr, Cytomegalovirus or HHV6, or bacterial infections, including Lyme disease. Each of these infections can be detected through appropriate testing, and can be successfully treated, helping reduce or resolve symptoms.
Immune system dysfunction
Recent studies have also shown a possible link between fibromyalgia and immune system dysfunction. After studying fibromyalgia for nearly two years, researchers found that a large number of fibromyalgia patients also have an abnormal immune system. The immune system dysregulation is related to significant changes in immune system proteins called cytokines and chemokines.
Cytokines and chemokines are immune regulators which respond to infection, signal immune response, and regulate inflammation. When these cytokines and chemokines are off-balance, immune dysfunction and inflammation often result. In the future, there may be testing available that provides quick, accurate diagnosis of fibromyalgia based on the presence of these specific cytokines in the blood.
Other contributing factors
Neurotoxins such as mercury or other heavy metals lodged in the brain can contribute to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. The use of chelating agents can help eliminate these toxins and related symptoms.
Patients who suffer from chronic infections may also have a special type of clotting disorder called a coagulation defect. In response to chronic infection, the immune system may create a special coating on the inside of blood vessels that interferes with delivery of oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body, which can contribute to chronic fatigue. This type of coagulation disorder can be treated with anti-coagulant medications.
While patients with fibromyalgia may still find doctors that say “it’s all in your head,” thankfully there are doctors who understand the condition and now how to treat it, giving patients an improved quality of life. In a study with 500 consecutive patients at Holtorf Medical Group, patients who were treated with a multi-system protocol reported that their average energy level and sense of well being doubled by the fourth visit. Overall improvement of symptoms was reported by 94 percent of patients. And an additional 5,000 patients treated by 40 other doctors trained in the same protocol reported significant relief of symptoms.