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Monday, October 10, 2005

Fibromyalgia: Do Away With That Absurd Word

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This is the typical scenario: someone goes to the doctor with a complaint of pain and chronic fatigue. The condition is debilitating and disrupting. Blood tests and other laboratory work find nothing that requires urgent medical intervention. The person’s presentation does not fit any other disease. Fibromyalgia is the “next best diagnosis.”

This essay was not written to present the history of fibromyalgia or review the signs and symptoms but to confront the unique dilemma that has made fibromyalgia so puzzling. Why has a so called disease that is supposedly non-life threatening ruined careers, destroyed marriages, and forced people to apply for disability assistance? Are we looking for the answer with the wrong map?

Consider alternative medicine since it has grown into a huge wellness industry. Medical journals have noted that people visit more alternative health care practitioners than traditionally based medical physicians. They are even paying for this care out of pocket. A change of attitude has brought people at a crossroads. Those who address their health care questions with alternative medical practitioners are taking a different direction, blazing a new path.

These practitioners are teaching a new definition of health. More accurately, they are reviving the long ago professed understanding that health needs to be nurtured rather than “confronted” like a school yard bully. The human body is very capable of surviving and thriving under appropriate conditions. Inappropriate conditions are known as stress. The new job is to figure our how to return back to those appropriate conditions.

Fibromyalgia sufferers have been on the merry-go-round of dissatisfaction for a long time. Their concerns are ignored. They are told to get used to it. “Go see a shrink to help you cope…” It is not yet an epidemic, so why be bothered? Yet, we have another epidemic to deal with: the consequences of stress. Maybe those with fibromyalgia have a lesson to teach us. For example, stress is not good for the heart. Someone with a heart condition is told to get on the treadmill and come back later for an angioplasty. Heart disease is very apparent. Looking at the heart has become easy. A person knows right away his or her heart attack risk. People with fibromyalgia, also suffering from stress, are faced with a bigger challenge. On their own they have to search for information about treatment alternatives. Because fibromyalgia is a syndrome, someone usually has to go to multiple practitioners, each one addressing a different symptom. They become detectives on a personal search for a better understanding of their situation.

The public is aware of stress. We know it is unhealthy. Sometimes we give it lip service because we do not see effects of stress until something severe happens. Fibromyalgia is another example of the effects of stress. But, there is no early detection test for it. A machine to monitor its progression has not been invented yet.

A better approach is to look at the person who is dealing with fibromyalgia. What can we learn by exploring the person’s strengths, weaknesses, attitude, living situation, etc.? The person gets overlooked when we are fixated on identifying and naming a disease. There is too much emphasis on the disease rather than the person who has the disease. Return to the beginning. What did we start with? A person. We have a person living his or her life. All of a sudden life changes. These folks are facing a different challenge that makes it difficult to live their original life style. Their old ways of functioning became incompatible and an “overload” was created. The challenge now is to figure out what contributed to the overload. The process requires adopting a life style most often endorsed by the alternative health care practitioners who are teaching the “renewed” definition of health. Because fibromyalgia does not affect each sufferer in an identical way, I prefer to do away with the word fibromyalgia. Once again, let’s get back to the individual and focus on the challenge he or she is facing. Managing the stress overload is a better protocol than accepting a disheartening label. Disregard the name of the disease and reframe the circumstances as a challenge to seek out a better way of living. It is still an arduous task, but the attitude is that of managing with empowerment and pride rather than the outlook of immobilized victim.

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