Women are far more likely than men to get fibromyalgia—a disease that causes pain and tender points throughout the body. Between 80 and 90 percent of people who are diagnosed with this condition are women, according to the National Institutes of Health. The reason for this gender inequality may have to do with hormones, immune system differences, or genes. But researchers still aren’t exactly sure why women get fibromyalgia in much greater numbers than men.
Fibromyalgia causes a very specific kind of pain. Women often describe it as a dull ache that starts in the muscles. To be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the pain must be on both sides of your body. And, it must affect both the upper and lower parts of your body. The pain may come and go. It can be worse on some days than on others, which can make it hard to plan for daily activities.
In addition to more widespread pain, fibromyalgia causes tender points around the body. They’re called tender points because when you press on them, they hurt. There are 18 possible tender points. You may have pain in some or all of these places:
- back of the head
- area between the shoulders
- front of the neck
- top of the chest
- outside of the elbows
- top and sides of the hips
- insides of the knees
The pain from fibromyalgia can make it very hard to sleep. Conditions that often occur with fibromyalgia—such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea—can also keep you awake at night. A lack of sleep night after night can make you feel tired and cause you to have trouble concentrating during the day. In a vicious cycle, a lack of sleep can also make your pain worse.
Women with fibromyalgia may start to notice that they have trouble remembering and concentrating. They may mix up words when they speak, or get confused more easily than they used to. These thinking problems are sometimes called “fibro fog” because the mind feels foggy. Although doctors aren’t sure what’s behind “fibro fog,” it may be caused by a lack of sleep or by the effects of fibromyalgia pain on the brain.
About half of people with fibromyalgia develop headaches, according to a study in the journal Clinical Rheumatology. Many women get migraines—a throbbing type of headache that can cause nausea, vomiting, and flashes of light. Why people with fibromyalgia are more likely to get headaches isn’t clear. But experts think fibromyalgia and headaches may stem from the imbalance of chemicals like serotonin and epinephrine in the brain.
In general, menstrual period cramps can be mild or painful, depending on the woman. But women with fibromyalgia report having more painful periods than usual. Some women with fibromyalgia also have endometriosis. In this condition, tissue from the uterus grows in other parts of the pelvis. Endometriosis can cause uncomfortable periods too. Women with fibromyalgia may also find that sexual intercourse becomes more painful.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another health condition that is more common in women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And women with fibromyalgia are more likely to have IBS. Researchers don’t know the reason why IBS and fibromyalgia are connected. IBS causes symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, which can also have a big impact on a woman’s life.
Many women with fibromyalgia get a creepy, crawly feeling in their legs that wakes them from sleep. This condition is known as restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS is much more common in people with fibromyalgia. About 33 percent of people with fibromyalgia have RLS, compared to only 3 percent of those who don’t have fibromyalgia. RLS disturbs sleep, and it can lead to daytime drowsiness.
If you have fibromyalgia, you might notice that you have to put on a sweater every time the temperature drops, or that you break into a sweat whenever the mercury rises. Temperature sensitivity is very common in women with this condition. Some women with fibromyalgia are also more sensitive than usual to other things, such as loud noises or bright lights.