Why is Fibromyalgia So Prevalent in Women?

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Black woman fighting chronic pain

Fibromyalgia affects about 4 million adults in the United States, which is about 2% of the adult population. While the cause of fibromyalgia is not known, but it can be effectively treated and managed. There are quite a number of risk factors for the condition, including simply being a woman. Fibromyalgia is prevalent in women; it’s actually twice as likely for women to have the condition than men.

Let’s take a look at some of other risk factors, the current research around the link between sex and fibromyalgia, and what steps women can take to fight both the pain and the misconceptions about the long misunderstood condition.

Common risk factors

Since fibromyalgia is prevalent in women, being female is a risk factor.

Other risk factors that increase your chances of developing fibromyalgia include:

The link between sex and fibromyalgia 

Though the precise cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, research shows a probable correlation with hormones, which explains why fibromyalgia is prevalent in women. One recent study found an increased frequency of premenstrual syndrome and primary dysmenorrhea (painful periods) among fibromyalgia patients. Researchers concluded that women who experience these severe syndromes along with high levels of depression are at risk of developing fibromyalgia.

Are men under-diagnosed? 

The link between sex and fibromyalgia seems clear, but another study in Denmark suggests men might be under-diagnosed. Since men lack high amounts of estrogen, which is known to activate pain receptors, the tender points used to perform pressure tests in diagnosing fibromyalgia are likely milder and easily overlooked. Tender points hurt when pressed on and appear on 18 locations around the body, including the head, neck, upper back, upper chest, elbows, hips and knees.

Women experience more symptoms 

The overall severe pain and functional symptoms of fibromyalgia are similar for both women and men, including the subsequent anxiety, depression, and stress. However, clinical data further highlights the struggles of women facing the condition: women experience many more symptoms, such as fatigue, all-over body aches and irritable bowel syndrome.

Taking steps to move beyond the misconceptions

Only in recent medical history has fibromyalgia been accepted in the mainstream as a real condition. The American Pain Society developed the first guidelines for treating fibromyalgia pain in 2005. Because blood tests and other practical methods for detecting illness cannot diagnose fibromyalgia, it was long considered a mental condition and not a legitimate disease. One distinct difference between patients with fibromyalgia and those without has been shown on MRI scans of patients’ brains.

As any fibromyalgia patient knows, the condition is far too real. Like migraines and other hidden illnesses, there are more unknowns than knowns about why these conditions persist and behave as they do.

And as women know, there are a myriad of health concerns ignored by the healthcare system until we prove we’re as sick as male patients. Bernandine Healy, M.D. coined the term Yentl syndrome in 2001 to describe the gender inequality, the under-diagnosis and the under-treatment of women throughout the healthcare system. Fibromyalgia diagnosis relies heavily on a patient’s perception and feedback, but also on healthcare providers removing their blinders and accepting the reality of hidden illnesses.

You can fight fibromyalgia

Black female doctor talking to back female patient about chronic pain

There isn’t a known cure for the condition, but it’s important for those with it to fight it and to fight misconceptions about it in their communities. Let’s look at some ways to do that:

  • Be open with your healthcare team

Begin with keeping your healthcare providers informed of every symptom. Make sure they communicate with each other. Your primary physician, neurologist, rheumatologist and pain management specialist should work in concert. Talk to them about how fibromyalgia is prevalent in women. It is more likely that a cure will be found as doctors learn about women and fibromyalgia.

  • Keep a pain diary

Track all of your symptoms and changes in response to medications and other therapies. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing the pain, but feedback from those doing so helps your medical team and the larger medical community identify successful treatments.

  • Be an advocate for yourself and for others fighting fibromyalgia

Don’t allow old societal misconceptions to prevail when you encounter them. Help your community understand that fibromyalgia is prevalent in women as well as other risk factors. Educate your family and friends about the symptoms and struggles of the condition. Provide them with research and updates about the condition as well as treatment options. Share your personal testimony in support groups and on online support networks.

  • Take care of yourself

Listen to your body’s warning signs. Healthy living, regardless of what condition you suffer, is crucial to your overall well-being and longevity. Steps you can take to relieve symptoms at home include getting enough sleep, reducing stress, getting regular physical activity and trying complementary therapies.

Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself. Knowledge and communication are crucial in helping yourself and others find an improved quality of life.

White woman holding her neck fibromylagia is prevalent in women

Fibromyalgia is often a lifelong condition, but it is not a progressive disease. Most people living with fibromyalgia continue to work, but may find it necessary to make changes to their workload and/or schedule in attempts to manage their pain. There are a number of federal laws that protect your rights as someone with a disability. If your symptoms make it so challenging for you that you can’t work, you may quality for disability benefits.

It is not known to cause problems getting pregnant for those women inclined, but it can exacerbate fatigue, stress and mood swings while pregnant.

Women – and men – with fibromyalgia may find themselves fighting an uphill battle as society and the medical community continue to learn about the condition. But with each conversation about risks, symptoms and management techniques, they continue to challenge their communities to be more supportive and more receptive to their needs and the medical community to improve pain management tactics and to find a cure. h

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