Fibromyalgia is a health condition impacting between 2 and 4% of the world’s population, with a greater prevalence among women than men. Most adults living with fibromyalgia experience widespread pain and discomfort, although symptoms vary greatly from person to person. The pain condition may also cause ongoing fatigue and memory issues, especially among older patients. While most individuals with fibromyalgia see a peak in symptoms around 50 years old, senior patients can experience complicated effects of fibromyalgia that warrant special attention.
For those with a proper diagnosis of fibromyalgia who are above the age of 65, the pain condition presents in more complex ways and requires more advanced treatment in some cases. Other changes in the body that come with the natural aging process make this a reality for senior patients. Because there is no cure for the condition, getting the right diagnosis as early as possible sets the foundation for the best possible course of treatment. First, however, it is important to recognize the symptoms of fibromyalgia and why it is some commonly misdiagnosed among older adults.
Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
Finding the best possible treatment to manage the discomfort of the physical and mental impacts of fibromyalgia begins with an understanding of the underlying symptoms. No matter the age, fibromyalgia symptoms may present as the following common ailments:
- Issues falling or staying asleep
- Constant fatigue
- Pain and tenderness throughout the body
- Memory loss and concentration issues
- Depression and anxiety
- Stiffness in the joints, especially when waking up
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Tingling in the hands, feet, arms, and legs
- Numbness throughout the limbs
- Achiness all over
Nearly all adults with fibromyalgia experience pain to some extent, but the severity and location of that pain is often different for each individual. In most cases, the pain experienced due to fibromyalgia is deep and sharp, but some seniors cite a dull and throbbing achiness that never seems to go away. Individuals with fibromyalgia may also have points of tenderness, specifically near the joints, causing pain that is debilitating. Combined with the other common symptoms of the pain condition, starting treatment to manage these issues is a must for older patients to live a quality life.
Issues with Misdiagnosis
Diagnosing fibromyalgia among the older population is not a straightforward task. The complexities of other related and unrelated issues that go hand in hand with aging make getting the proper diagnosis a challenge. Most medical providers start with a discussion about where and how it hurts; however, because pain is such a personal experience, rarely does a correct diagnosis come from this seemingly simple question. To get an accurate fibromyalgia diagnosis, doctors are encouraged to follow the guidance of the American College of Rheumatology which suggests fibromyalgia patients have at least 11 out of 18 specific pain points. Some of these points of discomfort include:
- Back or front of the neck
- The hips
- Lower or upper back
- The knees
- Chest and shoulders
Map of tender points.
Although referencing these pain points is helpful in diagnosing fibromyalgia in older patients, misdiagnosis runs rampant. A representative from a firm that provides legal aid on cases of wrong diagnosis explains that fibromyalgia is known as a mimic condition. The pain syndrome resembles several other common conditions, like arthritis which presents similarly. Patients with arthritis have cartilage degeneration that often leads to unbearable joint pain and tenderness, but this discomfort mimics the joint pain caused by fibromyalgia. Both conditions may also cause stiffness in the mornings, as well as fatigue. Arthritis is treated differently than fibromyalgia, and so a misdiagnosis when these similar symptoms present can lead to unsuccessful treatment and health complications that could impede one’s well-being.
“No matter the specific treatment plan followed, older adults with fibromyalgia should work with their provider to receive holistic care.”
Taking a Holistic Approach to Treatment
While there is a high probability that fibromyalgia in seniors will be initially misdiagnosed as another condition, once a proper diagnosis is made individuals have the opportunity to start treatment that best fits their specific needs. In addition to taking medications for pain management, seniors should follow each of the courses of treatment below.
Exercise: Although it can be challenging to exercise on a regular basis with a pain condition like fibromyalgia, research suggests that mild physical activity is one of the most effective treatments. Older patients with fibromyalgia may work with their doctor to develop a routine that is easy enough on the joints and muscles but still offers respite from the pain.
Getting enough sleep: Seniors with fibromyalgia are encouraged to get as much deep sleep as possible, although this can be difficult as we age. Experts suggest avoiding caffeine, especially later in the day, and limiting the number of naps. Taking supplements like calcium and magnesium at night may also help promote deeper, more restful sleep.
A healthy diet: Older individuals often have a lower intake of food than their younger counterparts, so getting the right balance of nutrition is critical. Fibromyalgia patients should first focus on getting enough calories throughout the day, and then eat foods that are high in certain nutrients. Taking a multivitamin to supplement is often recommended, especially for seniors with deficiencies in vitamin D or magnesium.
No matter the specific treatment plan followed, older adults with fibromyalgia should work with their provider to receive holistic care. Seniors often have additional health issues that must be addressed at the same time, making it critical to discuss treatment options that avoid complications as much as possible.
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