In Lady Gaga’s Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, the first scene shows the singer’s muscles being stretched and prodded on a massage table. It’s one of the ways she deals with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain all over the body.
It’s not known what causes the condition, and there’s no cure, which can make getting a diagnosis and managing the pain incredibly frustrating. Gaga addresses her struggles with the condition several times throughout the film and has talked about it openly in the last year.
When a celebrity as big as Gaga talks about fibromyalgia, it brings major awareness to the condition, but it’s still very misunderstood.
“Fibromyalgia is poorly identified by most people, even those in medicine, and there’s no specific test that can determine someone has it,” says pain management specialist Dr Charles Kim. “We have to test for other things and rule those out; it’s a diagnosis of exclusion.”
Fibromyalgia typically affects women in their twenties and thirties, and it’s more common in women than men, says Dr Kim, though researchers don’t know why.
Because it’s tricky to diagnose, it’s important to understand the symptoms so you can recognise it and suggest the possibility to your doctor.
Here are the most common symptoms of fibromyalgia and how to deal with them.
1. Widespread pain
You know how you used to feel after pulling an all-nighter at varsity? That’s the best way to describe how it feels to live with fibromyalgia, says Dr Kim. “You don’t feel refreshed when you wake up, but rather stiff, achy, really run down and in pain.”
Fibromyalgia is thought to trigger something called central sensitisation, which means your body “starts to get overly sensitive and react to things that normally wouldn’t hurt,” says Dr Kim.
There are pain medications your doctor can prescribe to help, but Dr Kim recommends trying other options before medication, like aerobic conditioning workouts (think walking, jogging, cycling, swimming) and acupuncture, which have both been shown to help ease fibromyalgia symptoms.
Along with pain comes a general sense of tiredness that just won’t go away, says Dr Kim, even after a good night of sleep. Doctors aren’t sure if patients are tired because of the pain they’re dealing with, or if their fatigue is causing the pain because they’re not getting proper muscle recovery when they sleep. “It’s sort of a chicken and egg question; we’re not sure which comes first,” says Dr Kim. He recommends acupuncture and mindfulness practices to help people with fibromyalgia get better sleep and improve their fatigue.