Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic pain in muscular and skeletal tissue, as well as a host of other physical and mental symptoms, such as fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, depression, and impaired memory. Although the mechanisms of the syndrome and its effects are still unknown, scientists think that the brains of people with fibromyalgia are hypersensitive to pain because of abnormally high levels of certain neurotransmitters associated with pain signals.
Despite how severe or debilitating the symptoms of fibromyalgia may be, people suffering from it face several challenges in legitimizing the condition to friends and families, medical professionals, and themselves. Since no definitive test exists for fibromyalgia, the diagnosis is primarily based on two criteria: widespread pain for three months, and ruling out other underlying conditions that could be causing the symptoms. With neither a specific biomarker to prove this condition or visible signs of illness, patients might feel self-conscious communicating their complaints to others, afraid that they’re not being taken seriously. Many women with chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia report that the ambiguity of their syndromes can make them blame themselves for their painful symptoms, and separate them from their self-identity of being a strong individual. I think that our society’s reliance on biomedicine as healthcare demeans the suffering of people with conditions that aren’t fully explained through biology.
Our healthcare system has developed to treat specific diseases and injuries, but is less effective at treating a patient as a whole person. Since fibromyalgia is an incurable syndrome, treatment plans focus on managing its symptoms. Western doctors can prescribe pain medications, antidepressants, and sleeping aids, but these drugs only partially treat fibromyalgia. People with the condition also benefit from adapting their lifestyle to reduce stress, get adequate sleep and exercise, and eat nutritiously. Many seek and gain relief from alternative forms of healing, like acupuncture and massage. Counseling and social support are crucial to helping someone mentally cope with the illness.
Belief is an important part of healing. As the video “Placebo: Cracking the Code” explained, the level of faith people place in health professionals and medications is a strong determinant of the level of healing they experience. In the placebo effect, this faith itself is able to alleviate pain and sometimes even cure illness. I myself probably experienced this during my childhood when I was sick and stayed home under the care of my mom. Because of my belief in her ability to make me feel better, drinking ginger ale and eating saltines under her direction could sooth my nausea, even if these foods themselves had little physical effect. In the video, a surgeon in Houston found that simply going through the ritual of knee surgery without actually performing the surgery could completely heal patients who previously had debilitating knee pain. The patients experienced this healing purely because they expected to. Research like this opens up the potential of harnessing the body’s ability to heal itself by relying on the mind and its beliefs.
Werner, A., Isaksen, L., & Malterud, K. (2004). ‘I am not the kind of woman who complains of everything’: Illness stories on self and shame in women with chronic pain. Social Science & Medicine, 59, 1035–1045.