What is fibromyalgia? Symptoms & causes explained

Siski Green / 30 October 2015

Pain, stiffness and tiredness are some of the symptoms of this condition. Find out more.



Pain radiating throughout your body, aches, and stiffness in joints, along with a tiredness that you can’t explain away because of extra activity – these are the symptoms that an estimated 1.7 million people suffer with in the UK, people who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Although symptoms vary widely between people, the pain is usually intense and lasts for months.

Why are you so tired? Check these possible causes

What is fibromyalgia?

This is the term given for a group of symptoms that include pains and stiffness in muscles and joints.

Unlike pain and stiffness that are the result of arthritis, for example, patients with fibromyalgia will come back negative on blood tests for arthritis-specific antibodies.

The pain and stiffness also lasts for several months, unlike pain and stiffness that could be caused by exercise or another temporary illness, for example.

People are also often extremely tired, even after a night’s sleep, which is why some doctors theorise that this is a related aspect to the cause (see below).

Other symptoms may include depression, anxiety and headache. 

What causes fibromyalgia?

The truth is that as yet no one knows for sure yet.

Some doctors argue that it is a psychological disorder but there isn’t sufficient evidence to support that, others suggest that it relates to abnormalities in the sleep cycle, while others think it may be down to abnormal levels of specific brain chemicals that upset pain perception, viral infections, or trauma.

The most recent research, from the University of Florida, USA, does indicate that at least some people with diagnosed fibromyalgia have central nervous systems that respond differently to the pain of heat.

This suggests that an abnormality in the central nervous system may also be at the root of the fibromyalgia symptoms. 

How can I find out if I have fibromyalgia?

People with the symptoms of fibromyalgia – long-term pain and stiffness across the body – will usually be checked first for unusual swellings or inability to move certain body parts.

You’ll need to be patient, as doctors will rightly check all other possibilities before diagnosing you with fibromyalgia.

Not all doctors are familiar with the illness, so be prepared to ask to see someone else if your doctor doesn’t accept fibromyalgia as a diagnosis.

You may be given blood tests, scans or x-rays to check for other potential causes such as thyroid disease, vitamin deficiency or cancer. If those tests come back clear, a diagnosis of fibromyalgia may be given. 

How can I prevent fibromyalgia?

As no one knows how it is caused, it’s impossible to prevent.

Those who are more at risk include women who are about eight times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men, those who have already been diagnosed with rheumatic disease, and those who have a history of the illness in the family.  

What can I do to treat fibromyalgia?

Painkillers and muscle relaxants help to relieve the symptoms, but low-impact exercises are also used to help and have been found to be very effective.

Swimming, cycling, yoga or using a stair-machine at the gym are good low-impact forms of exercise.

As sleep seems to be an important element in how severe symptoms are, it’s important to do all you can to improve your sleep quality.

Avoid screen time (TV/computer) for a good hour or so before bed, steer clear of caffeine and make sure your bedroom is dark and cool (18-20 degrees) to ensure a restful night’s sleep. 

Learn more about getting a good night's sleep

You can also try alternative therapies such as acupuncture, tai chi, or massage, for example. 

Finally, seek support. Psychological therapy or even joining a support group can be immensely useful for helping you deal with your illness and getting the latest information on how to relieve symptoms.

Go to www.ukfibromyalgia.com for more information on support groups.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.