You sometimes hear fibromyalgia referred to as a “fad diagnosis” or “new disease,” but the truth is that fibromyalgia is far from new. It has centuries of history, with multiple name changes and discarded theories along the way.
While it hasn’t always been accepted by the medical community, and today its acceptance isn’t universal, fibromyalgia has come a long way and current research continues to offer proof that it’s a very real physiological illness.
The most-often cited historical account of fibromyalgia comes from a 2004 paper by researchers Fatma Inanici and Muhammad B. Yunus. This history was compiled from their work as well as new information from the past decade. (All sources are cited at the end of the article.)
Back to the Beginning – 1592-1900
Early on, doctors didn’t have separate definitions for all the pain conditions we recognize today. Descriptions and terminology started out broad and gradually were narrowed down.
In 1592, French physician Guillaume de Baillou introduced the term “rheumatism ” to describe musculoskeletal pain that didn’t originate from injury. This was a broad term that would have included fibromyalgia as well as arthritis and many other illnesses. Eventually, doctors began to use “muscular rheumatism” for painful conditions that, like fibromyalgia, didn’t cause deformity.
Two-hundred years later, definitions still were rather vague.
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However, in 1815, Scottish surgeon William Balfour noted nodules on connective tissues and theorized that inflammation could be behind both the nodules and pain. He was also the first to describe tender points (which would later be used to diagnose fibromyalgia.)
A few decades later, French doctor Francios Valleix used the term “neuralgia” to describe what he believed was referred pain from tender points traveling along the nerves.
Other theories of the day included hyperactive nerve endings or problems with the muscles themselves.
In 1880, American neurologist George William Beard coined the terms neurasthenia and myelasthenia to describe widespread pain along with fatigue and psychological disturbance. He believed the condition was caused by stress.The creation of more specific terminology really exploded in the early 20th century. Different names for fibromyalgia-like illness included:
- Muscle hardening
Fibrositis, coined in 1904 by British neurologist Sir William Gowers, is the one that stuck. The symptoms Gowers mentioned will look familiar to those with fibromyalgia:
- Spontaneous pain,
- Sensitivity to pressure,
- Sleep disturbances,
- Sensitivity to cold,
- Aggravation of symptoms by muscle over-use.
As a treatment, he suggested cocaine injections, as cocaine was then used medicinally as a topical anesthetic.
Medically, “fibro” means connective tissue and “itis” means inflammation. Soon after Gowers put forth the name, another researcher published a study seeming to confirm many of Gowers’ theories about the mechanisms of inflammation in the condition. This helped cement the term fibrositis in the vernacular. Ironically, this other research was later found to be faulty.