How Fibromyalgia Affects Men

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Randy Wold, 58, was an auto mechanic, an excellent golfer, and a bowler who never scored below 200. Then, nearly 10 years ago, when he was suffering from intense chronic pain, he received a surprise diagnosis. His doctor told him he had fibromyalgia. A disorder that causes chronic pain and fatigue, fibromyalgia strikes mostly women.

Of the estimated 5 million adults with fibromyalgia in the U.S., as few as 10% are men,  For that reason, the popular perception of it as a women’s disease has persisted, even among fellow patients. “When I first went to a support group meeting, it was all women,” says Wold, who is now on the board of the National Fibromyalgia Association – and the only male board member with the disease.

“Some didn’t want me there.” A neurologist who Wold consulted wouldn’t see him, discounting his diagnosis and accusing him of angling to get disability payments. “It’s a tough deal for a man to have fibromyalgia,” says Wold, who is no longer able to work and can only occasionally hit the links or the lanes. “One of my best friends doesn’t believe I have it,” he says. “His wife, who is a doctor, told him men can’t get it, that it is in my head.

Many doctors think fibro as a women’s disease

Fibromyalgia can be especially hard on men. “Men are expected to ‘suck it up and tough it out,’” one man noted in a survey on the ailment published earlier this month. In fact, men may wait years, feeling increasingly worse, before they have a diagnosis.

Often men are treated for low back pain that doesn’t account for their other complaints, Daniel Clauw, a rheumatologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Healthline. They end up getting “too much surgery.” They also might end up with a prescription for opioids that make their condition worse. Getting the right care requires risking embarrassment.

“As hard as it sometimes is for a woman to be believed, it’s typically harder for men, because many doctors, and others, still think of fibro as a woman’s disease.” writes Kevin P. White, a rheumatologist and author of “Breaking Thru the Fibro Fog: Scientific Proof Fibromyalgia Is Real.” “Men with fibro, therefore, are often stigmatized as being wimpy, or whiney, or lazy and opportunistic.”

Fibromyalgia Rarer Among Men

It’s uncertain what causes fibromyalgia or why so few men suffer from it. Certain types of viral infections, traumas such as car accidents, and emotional stress can trigger it. In some cases, though, it strikes without warning. Whatever the cause, there are certain biological markers that those with the disorder frequently have in common.

According to Muhammad B. Yunus, MD, a professor of medicine at the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine, fibromyalgia is characterized by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. “It is a neurochemical disease,” says Yunus, who points out that people with fibromyalgia show a higher than average amount of substance P, a neurotransmitter that signals pain, and a lower than average amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that inhibits pain.

Risk factors

Fibromyalgia affects roughly 2 to 8 percent of the United States population. Although 80 to 90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women, men of all ages may have fibromyalgia as well. In fact, up to 1.5 million men in the U.S. may currently have fibromyalgia, and many more will experience it in their lifetime.  Some people are at higher risk of developing fibromyalgia than others. As well as gender, other risk factors for developing fibromyalgia include the following:

  • >A personal history of other rheumatic diseases including lupus
  • >A history of mood or depressive disorders 

  • >A family history of fibromyalgia

Often Overlooked

Because of the gender disparity, we know a lot more about how fibromyalgia affects women. Many studies are done with exclusively female participants and most doctors have a lot more practical experience with female fibromyalgia patients.

A lot of people, and even some doctors, erroneously think that men don’t get fibromyalgia. This can cause special problems for men who are living with it both in getting a diagnosis and in finding support. Societal expectations and stereotypes of men pose their own problems as well.

One study suggested that fibromyalgia is under-diagnosed in general, and even more under-diagnosed in men. It was a relatively small study and it didn’t examine the reasons behind the under-diagnosis. However, now that the issue has received some attention, it’s possible that we’ll continue learning more about it.

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia in Men

Fatigue

Fatigue is present in the majority of patients. Poor or disturbed sleep, with frequent night-time awakenings and difficulty falling back to sleep, is frequently reported. Feeling of exhaustion upon awakening may be severe, and morning stiffness is common.5 Symptoms of fibromyalgia in men also tend to last for shorter duration and occur less frequently than those appearing in female patients. However, a recent study shows that male symptoms may actually be more severe than those experienced by women. t also showed that men tended to have:

  • >Lower reported pain intensity
  • >Lower tender-point count
  • >Lower depression rates
  • >Longer duration of symptoms when making the first complaint to a doctor
  • >Higher overall disability due to symptoms

Diagnosis

In order to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a man must experience widespread pain for more than 3 months. This pain must have no known medical cause. There are no lab tests to diagnose fibromyalgia, but a doctor may do blood tests and imaging to rule out other causes. A man living with fibromyalgia may find it difficult to get a diagnosis. Fibromyalgia symptoms occur in a number of diseases and disorders that doctors will need to rule out. Some doctors may think of fibromyalgia as a woman’s condition and not consider fibromyalgia in a man as a viable diagnosis.

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