Spotting clues that point to ‘invisible’ disorder

Faced with a patient who is ‘tired all the time’ and reports ‘pain in my body every day’, many General Practitioners may struggle to identify fibromyalgia, a little-known but debilitating condition as the cause of their patient’s suffering.

Fibromyalgia is a widespread and yet little-recognised and little-understood pain and fatigue disorder that is thought to affect millions world-wide. Symptoms include persistent pain – the body interprets touch or movement as pain although there is no tissue damage – and in most cases fatigue. Sufferers report disordered sleep, finding a normal transition from wakefulness to sleep impossible; several hours of insomnia can be followed by a period of spasmodic sleep which leaves the patient feeling profoundly dazed and unwell on waking. There is also a high incidence of depression, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction and headaches. More women than men are afflicted with the disorder, but it shows up in people of all ages and can often be confused with other ‘chronic fatigue’ disorders or wrongly, and perhaps sceptically, ascribed to psychological causes.

This week, Dr Kim Lawson, a Sheffield Hallam University lecturer in pharmacology will be meeting MPs to discuss how best vitally important information on the diagnosis and treatment of fibromyalgia can be communicated to GPs. An All Party Parliamentary Group has been established to tackle the issue of fibromylagia and Dr Lawson will be attending their meeting on 21 November alongside representatives of the Department of Health. Dr Lawson, who is a member of the Medical Advisory Board to the Fibromyalgia Association UK and UK representative of PARAPH, says that it is vital to raise awareness of the disorder.

‘We need to educate and inform members of all of the disciplines that come into contact with people who may be experiencing the pain and exhaustion associated with this disorder. Raising awareness among GPs is vital, but we also need to reach nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and Primary Healthcare Trusts around the country. Unless we do, misdiagnosis and lack of support will continue to be added to the burden of individuals’ symptoms,’ he said.

He also offered some hope for the future, saying:

‘This condition, which can ruin sufferers’ lives and afflicts millions of people, needs to be properly acknowledged and requires serious medical attention devoted to it. Once it can be properly diagnosed, raised awareness of its seriousness and relative commonness should prompt the research that is needed to identify the cause and, we hope, a cure’.

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