By Adrienne Dellwo | Reviewed by Grant Hughes, MD
More than 6-million people in the U.S. have fibromyalgia, and the condition is found in all cultures around the globe. Anyone can get it, but some people are more at risk.
Having risk factors for an illness doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop it. You might have every risk factor for something and never get it, while having no risk factors for something else that you do get. After all, you can find cases where someone has smoked for 50 years and is relatively healthy while some people die of lung disease without ever smoking a single cigarette.
Risk factors are a likelihood, not a guarantee.
Several things have been identified as possible risk factors for fibromyalgia. We have no control over some of them, but others you may be able to change and thereby reduce your risk.
Fibromyalgia Risk Factors
While both men and women can develop fibromyalgia, between 80 and 90 percent of people diagnosed with it are women. Experts don’t know why that is, but some believe it could be tied to hormones and other physiological differences.
Some research suggests that premature perimenopause and gynocologic surgery increase women’s risk of the condition.
However, the validity of gender as a risk factor has been called into question—some experts suspect men are less likely to seek treatment, and therefore are not diagnosed as frequently as women.
A common stereotype is that fibromyalgia is something post-menopausal women get. In actuality, it most often develops during childbearing years and a diagnosis is most common between the ages of 20 and 55.
Fibromyalgia can strike at any age, though. In children and teenagers, it’s called juvenile fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia often shows up multiple times within families. Research shows that women closely related to someone with fibromyalgia are more likely to develop the illness themselves.
However, it isn’t hereditary in the sense that if you have certain genes, you’ll get it.
Instead, researches believe there’s a genetic predisposition. That means you have the possibility of developing it if other conditions are met.
It’s possible that long-term sleep deprivation, like the kind that results from untreated sleep disorders, may increase your risk. Many people diagnosed with fibromyalgia have a history of sleep problems, including sleep apnea and insomnia.
Some doctors recommend sleep studies for their fibromyalgia patients to check for undiagnosed sleep disorders.
Unlike age, gender, and genetics, you might be able to do something about this risk factor. If you’re at elevated risk, you may want to have your doctor evaluate you for sleep disorders and treat any that may be diagnosed.
People coming from stressful environments or who are particularly vulnerable to stress (either physiological or psychological) develop fibromyalgia more frequently that those impacted less by stress.
Studies have suggested that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic stress may play a strong role in the development of fibromyalgia. High stress levels are also known to trigger flare-ups (periods of increased symptoms) in many people with the codition.
Studies show low levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and dysfunction in the HPA axis, which deals with physiological reactions to stress.
Learning to manage your stress may lower your fibromyalgia risk.
Scoliosis/Low Back Pain:
In one study, about 25 percent of people with low back pain eventually developed fibromyalgia, and scoliosis or other postural disorders made fibromyalgia more likely. Other research confirms the link with scoliosis.
Interestingly, a deficiency of melatonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that may be linked to sleep disorders, is also believed to contribute to scoliosis.
Some research shows that people whose joints bend beyond the normal range (often called being “double jointed”) are more likely to develop fibromyalgia, possibly because they’re more prone to repeated minor injuries of their connective tissues.
Other Chronic-Pain Conditions:
People with frequent headaches/migraines, lupus, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis) are at increased risk for developing fibromyalgia, possibly because their chronic pain causes changes to the central nervous system known as central sensitization, which is suspected of playing a key role in fibromyalgia and several related conditions.
It’s unknown what effect proper treatment of these conditions may have on fibromyalgia risk.
Some research has suggested that people who smoke are more likely to develop fibromyalgia, as well as exacerbating symptoms in people who have it.
Certainly, many risks of smoking are well known, and this may be one more reason for you to kick the habit.
Controversial Possible Risk Factors
Some experts believe that traumatic brain injury, neck injury such as whiplash, and infectious disease are risk factors for fibromyalgia.
Enough people report onset of the condition after these events that they’ve attracted the attention of researchers and, when it comes to onset following motor vehicle accidents, the insurance industry and legal system.
So far, research has failed to confirm a link.
Lowering Your Risk
You certainly can’t do much to mitigate some of these risk factors. However, if you feel you’re at risk you can work to effectively lower or manage stress and and get proper medical treatment for pain, sleep disorders, past emotional trauma, or PTSD.
You may also lower your risk (and improve your life) by getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet.
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