Head in the Clouds: Dealing with Fibro Fog

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If you have fibromyalgia, you’re probably dealing with memory and concentration problems AKA, “fibro fog”.

Lynne Matallana often loses her train of thought when she talks. It’s very frustrating to have your friends finish your sentences for you, she says. A former partner at a prestigious Los Angeles advertising agency, Matallana has always loved language and felt comfortable in conversation, so the memory lapses initially worried her. Then she became really concerned. I would start driving and realize I had no idea where I was, she recalls. It was terrifying. Finally, she went to a doctor, who told her the memory troubles were related to her fibromyalgia. They even had a name for it: fibro fog.

There are 15 common symptoms that can come with the chronic pain condition known as fibromyalgia, including headaches, dizziness and insomnia. While doctors have long known that fibromyalgia often causes problems related to thinking, there wasn’t much clinical evidence of fibro fog until the late 1990s, when researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that the vast majority of the estimated 10 million Americans suffering from the mysterious condition feel, well,  foggy. They struggle to prioritize tasks, organize their thoughts and concentrate. They’re often at a loss for words and forget plans they’ve made or where they put their keys, which can lead to depression, anxiety and lethargy as well as make for potential disaster while driving, as in Matallana’s case.

Clearing away the haze

Jennifer Glass, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, says there are many studies that show people with any kind of chronic pain can suffer from cognitive problems, not just those with fibromyalgia. We don’t know if it is worse for people with fibromyalgia, but many people complain that (fibro fog) is the worst part of having fibromyalgia, she says. It’s still unclear what creates the fog. Part of the problem may be a lack of sleep, since the majority of those with the condition suffer from insomnia. Another contributing factor could be fibro medications, like anxiety meds alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin), which can leave you a little spacey. Glass’s theory: If you are in pain, the pain automatically gets your brain’s attention. Thinking about the pain and whatever it is that you are trying to focus on is challenging.

Right now there’s no cure for fibro fog, but both drug and non drug approaches can curb some of its effects. Prescription stimulants such as modafinil (Proviqil) will help give you more energy, while meditation and relaxation techniques can reduce stress, which can make poor concentration and memory lapses worse. A balanced, protein-rich diet and proper rest can stave off fatigue, while regular exercise boosts levels of stress-busting serotonin in your brain and improves cognition. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro recently discovered that fibromyalgia patients who were physically active three times a week for 18 weeks saw an improvement in memory, attention and ability to recall. Experts also suggest shortening your to-do list and tackling tasks one at a time (give up multitasking, in other words) and stimulating your memory by reading books and working crossword or Sudoku puzzles regularly.

Using many of these methods, Matallana has worked for seven hard years to take back her life and mind. She’s now able to drive again and hasn’t had a scary lost moment since. I feel very fortunate, she says. I’ve found what does and does not work to make this manageable, and I finally feel more normal. The one thing you should never give up, she says, is a positive outlook. I always think I’m going to move beyond this someday, she explains, and something as simple as that helps me reduce my symptoms.

 

Written by: Jen Christensen, investigative producer at CNN
Originally published in Pain Solutions Magazine
Photo credit: Ale059 at Stockfreeimages.com

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