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What is the history of fibromyalgia?


Since fibromyalgia is still something we don’t know that much about, even after countless medical advancements, it makes sense that the history of fibromyalgia is also one shrouded in confusion and false conclusions about the condition. It is a very recent development that fibromyalgia is an accepted physical medical condition – up until recently, many doctors would chalk up the symptoms to depression or hypochondriasis.

In the early stages of recognizing fibromyalgia as a medical condition, it was classified as a mental disorder. The first documented case was in the early 1800s. The doctors who described it wrote about it in the terms of a “muscular rheumatism.” They did note the same symptoms we today accept as part of the fibromyalgia syndrome – stiffness, tiredness, aches, pains, and difficulty falling asleep and staying later. The first time the tender points of fibromyalgia – now an accepted tool for diagnosing someone with fibromyalgia – came into play was in the early 1820s. A Scottish doctor noted and described the specific locales that we now incorporate into the eighteen points of tenderness characteristic of fibromyalgia.

The term “fibromyalgia” is a name for the disease that was adopted in 1976. Before that, in the late 1800s, it was being called “fibrositis.” In the early investigations as to what was causing the pain experienced in fibromyalgia, doctors believed that it was attributed to inflammation in the body – though now we believe that it has to do with incorrect sensory processing by the central nervous system – and “itis” is the suffix used to denote conditions involving swelling. By 1976, however, we knew more about it and doctors no lingered believed that swelling in the body was the culprit for fibromyalgia pain. “Fibromyalgia” came about as the term used to describe the disease. It comes from the Latin Fibra, which means fibrous tissue and has to do with painful tendons and ligaments, the Greek Myos, which means muscle, and the Greek Algos, which means pain. So, in essence fibromyalgia means: fibrous tissue pain, muscle pain, and painful tendons and ligaments.

1981 saw the first scientific study that definitively confirmed what that Scottish doctor was seeing in the 1820s. The study officially established the tender points as keys in diagnosing fibromyalgia. There is a huge gap in advancements, however, because it wasn’t until a decade later in 1990 that the American College of Rheumatology drafted the very first set of guidelines to use in diagnosing whether or not a patient has fibromyalgia. While diagnostic guidelines came about in 1990, treatment guidelines took another decade and a half to show up. In 2005, the American Pain Society published the first guidelines for treating fibromyalgia pain. Two years after that, in 2007, the FDA approved the first prescription medication to manage fibromyalgia pain.

Research into fibromyalgia causes and treatments is ongoing. More treatments and medications are being discovered, and people like Dr. Don L. Goldenberg at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts have dedicated their lives to the research of fibromyalgia. Dr. Goldenberg is the Chief of Rheumatology at Newton-Wellesley and he directs the Arthritis-Fibromyalgia Center there. Today, approximately 6 million Americans live with fibromyalgia pain, but the future of fibromyalgia treatment is bright. There are new innovations regularly, and awareness of fibromyalgia is spreading.