Is Fibromyalgia genetic? Enigmatic and often baffling to both patients and researchers alike, fibromyalgia is a conundrum of a medical condition that affects roughly 5 million Americans over the age of 18. Between 80 and 90 percent of those are women. Most patients are middle-aged when diagnosed, though fibromyalgia may occur in younger people, and rarely, even in children.
For such a pervasive disease, the question of whether fibromyalgia is genetic still comes into question for professionals and researchers.
What is Fibromyalgia?
The most common symptoms are muscle pain, tenderness, and heightened sensitivity to pressure throughout the body, along with lifestyle-dampening fatigue.
But there are many other symptoms. They may include poor sleep, headaches, morning stiffness, irritable bowel syndrome, cognitive and memory problems (“fibro fog”), heightened sensitivity to temperature, bright lights, or loud noises, numbness and tingling in the extremities, restless leg syndrome, and painful menstruation, to name a few.
Fibromyalgia is often comorbid with several rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis, and often occurs with depression, including bipolar 2.
Because of the number and diversity of fibromyalgia’s symptoms, which make it exceedingly hard to classify, it’s called a syndrome rather than a disease. And so far, even after decades of study, researchers have identified no single cause. Patients diagnosed with it frequently appear–and test–as physically and clinically healthy. Lab tests come back with good numbers. Inflammation levels in the body are low or normal. The markers doctors routinely look for to indicate trouble in the body simply aren’t there.
The result is often a long, frustrating, and dispiriting search for answers by the patient. In years past, fibromyalgia was a last-ditch diagnosis made by physicians who simply could find no reason for their patients to be so sick and in such intractable and unremitting pain. Unfortunately, many fibro sufferers were dismissed as attention-and/or drug seekers or hypochondriacs. Their misery was “all in your head.”
That phrase, as derogatory as it sounds, may have far more truth to it than anyone suspected, however. Researchers have uncovered several possible causes for fibro that do, actually, involve the head. Or, more specifically, the brain.
Is Fibromyalgia Genetic?
Many patients contract fibromyalgia following a traumatic injury, illness, or event, pointing to chemical and neurological changes that occur both in the body and in the brain. Pinpointing those changes is a challenge, but several studies of fibro patients have isolated specific chemicals that interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters and synapses that control how it perceives pain. A large cohort of scientists now believe that fibromyalgia may be a condition directly related to changes in the central nervous system. Such changes could certainly account for the hypersensitivity to touch and sensation associated with the syndrome.
In addition, scientists have isolated several specific genes found in both fibromyalgia patients and those with depression. And, they’ve discovered that fibromyalgia sometimes runs in families, indicating a possible genetic predisposition.
But not everyone who suffers a physical or mental trauma, or who has parents or other relatives with fibromyalgia also contract it themselves. This indicates that the syndrome may be the result of a “trigger” event, substance, or environmental factor (such as bacteria or viruses). Discovering these triggers will help scientists pinpoint what causes fibro and, one day, come up with more effective treatments for it and perhaps, even find a cure.
Thankfully the result of research moves Fibromyalgia away from the old standard and is no longer a “last-ditch” diagnosis. With the help of your doctor, you can learn if you have Fibromyalgia, and how to treat it and continue to live a healthy vibrant life.
Written by Leslie Vandever, a freelance writer, and journalist with more than 30 years of experience. She lives in Northern California.