Fibromyalgia can be a frustrating disease for doctors, as well as for patients, because it is inconsistent and difficult to diagnose. The painful condition does not cause permanent muscle damage. It can suddenly go into remission or it can linger for years.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by disabling fatigue and pain that starts in the muscles and soft tissues surrounding joints. It is also known as fibrositis or fibromyositis. The disease affects about 2% of the U.S. population. It can occur at any age, but typically develops between age 20 and 60. It is about twice as common in women as in men. Fibromyalgia frequently runs in families.

Although the cause of fibromyalgia is not yet known, a number of theories exist linking the condition with:

  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • stress
  • immune and endocrine system abnormalities
  • central nervous system disorders
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • hormone balances.

There is no specific test to diagnose fibromyalgia. Doctors have developed a method of diagnosis based on identifying "tender point sites." To find these, your doctor will palpate or touch various parts of your body. Eleven of 18 sites must be tender in order to confirm the diagnosis.

Because many conditions mimic the disorder, fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose. Testing helps rule out other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Lyme disease, thyroid disorder and infections.

Though there is no known cure, a number of treatments have been found effective in reducing symptoms. A combination of therapies is usually recommended and could include:

  • Daily exercise, including aerobic exercise and gentle stretching to aid sleep, which is compromised by the disorder. Improved sleep is linked to reduced pain.
  • Medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories to reduce discomfort, antidepressants to improve sleep and relieve depression and muscle relaxants to reduce muscle spasms.
  • Physical therapy to ease symptoms. Physical therapists apply treatments like hot packs and massage, and can teach techniques for posture and exercise programs.
  • Occupational therapy programs to help with stress management, proper body mechanics, energy conservation and adaptive techniques to facilitate daily activities.

Your doctor will talk with you about your expected prognosis. Recovery is affected by factors like age, overall health, severity of symptoms and your commitment to a rehabilitation program.