Anyone who has practiced medicine or been involved in women’s health in the past 50 years has encountered fibromyalgia in one form or another. Many of us have seen the fibromyalgia pendulum swing from under-recognition to over-diagnosed, and back to under-diagnosed again.
Although the course of fibromyalgia mirrors our society’s recognition and treatment of pain in general, this particular disorder is also handicapped by its association with women. Since women were not part of the medical and research establishment until recently, diseases that affect women exclusively or predominantly have often been ignored or downplayed.
Admittedly, fibromyalgia is not an easy diagnosis to make and has no reliable treatments. It is also not progressive, does not cause permanent muscle or joint damage, and does not directly cause early death. Until recently, there were no easy blood markers for fibromyalgia as with other rheumatologic diseases. No x-rays or MRI findings can help diagnose it.
But the main problem with fibromyalgia was that the vast majority of patients who present with this syndrome of widespread pain and tender points are women.
Thus, it was easier for the arrogant and sexist wing of medicine to relegate fibromyalgia to the “histrionic” or “psychogenic” disorders that predominantly affect women.
Other examples of severe disabling painful conditions that affect women more than men are endometriosis, pelvic pain, polymyalgia rheumatica, migraine, lupus, scleroderma, and trigeminal neuralgia. Some of these disorders are just now being recognized, researched and beginning to get treated.
Though the term fibromyalgia was first coined in the 1970s, the disease can be traced back thousands of years to biblical times. When I was going through medical school and residency training in the 1980s, many of my attending physicians refused to recognize fibromyalgia as a “real” disorder and often did not offer any treatment for it.
To some degree, this was due to our poor understanding of how the nervous system affects musculoskeletal tissue. But in the vast majority of cases, the refusal to acknowledge fibromyalgia stemmed from the undercurrent of misogyny that permeates medicine even today.
Learning How to Treat Fibromyalgia
There were others in the medical community who recognized fibromyalgia and taught me what it was, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it — despite our very limited, almost non-existent treatment options at the time.
In the 1990s, when I started my private practice in California’s San Fernando Valley, my practical education of fibromyalgia was furthered by the multiple women who presented in my office with this puzzling, intractable disease. Since there were no FDA-approved treatments yet, we would try every and any off-label treatment possible to see if we can get any long-term or even short-term relief of symptoms.
There were the traditional trials of NSAIDs, tricyclics like amitriptyline, trazodone, SSRI’s, low dose opioids, muscle relaxants, warm water physical therapy, trigger point injections; and then the non-traditional treatments like guaifenesin, anti-inflammatory diets, acupuncture, yoga, tai-chi, sauna, infrared therapy, cannabis, low dose naltrexone and moving to a warm, dry climate.
Although none of these treatments are highly effective; when they did work it was a tremendous relief to restore function to these long-suffering patients. Despite this, I would still occasionally learn of suicide threats and attempts by fibromyalgia patients who did not respond to any of these treatments.
These patients pushed me and other doctors to treat pain seriously; so that it does not become a cause of other morbid pathologies such as depression, fibro fog, cervicogenic headache, irritable bowel, overactive bladder and chronic fatigue. It also emboldened us to use stronger opioids, if necessary, to control chronic pain. This coincided with the release of longer-acting opioids like MS Contin, fentanyl patches and OxyContin.
As the recognition of fibromyalgia went mainstream in the 2000s, so did the push to control pain more aggressively with higher doses of opiates. Laws were passed and guidelines were published, urging physicians to treat pain seriously. Physicians were taught, in one seminar after the other, that longer-acting opioids would control pain throughout the day with less need for pill-popping. This would provide more stable blood levels and less euphoria, making opioids less habit-forming and minimize addiction potential.
In the late 2000s, Lyrica was the first medication specifically approved for the treatment of fibromyalgia, followed in quick succession by Savella and Cymbalta. Fibromyalgia patients benefited from the increased recognition and treatment of their disorder and the aggressive approach to pain control.
Many of my patients who didn’t respond to off-label treatments achieved remission with the new FDA-approved meds. Some who didn’t were eventually stabilized on higher doses of hydrocodone, oxycodone, Dilaudid, methadone, buprenorphine, morphine or fentanyl. Some of the more severe cases were able to get off oral meds and restore normal daily function after we implanted subcutaneous pain medicine pumps.
A New Betrayal
Then in the early 2010s, reports of rising death tolls from opiate overdoses began coming in, often involving drug seekers who were crushing and snorting OxyContin tablets to get high. It was also recognized that patients on chronic opioids were at risk of accidental overdose.
In response, more cautious opioid prescribing guidelines came out from state medical boards and the CDC; followed by the DEA prosecuting pharmacies and pain management doctors. One pain clinic after another started closing down, their patients were often red-flagged and unable to find new doctors. Vast numbers of patients became collateral damage as the news media and legal profession fanned the flames of the war against opiates.
For chronic pain patients in general, the lack of access to pain meds required them to make serious adjustments to their lifestyles, like not getting out of bed, not holding a job, and not taking care of their family. For many fibromyalgia patients, it was as if the doors to treatment were slammed shut.
The latest betrayal for these patients is coming from the medical and academic community itself. I was horrified and shocked at my last pain management seminar when the young professor lecturing on the topic of fibromyalgia stated aloud the official current policy of the medical community is that there is no role for opioids in treating fibromyalgia.
When asked what we should do for patients who have failed all the recommended treatments, FDA-approved and otherwise, he could only recommend yoga. That was when I realized that misogyny was back in style. The medical community has been cowed by “opiate hunters” into toeing the line and spouting what is essentially a ludicrous theory: the idea that we should not use pain medicine in the treatment of chronic pain.
This is what is being taught today in medical schools all over the country. The next generation of physicians is being trained to think that it’s okay to leave people in chronic pain day after day, when there are good medicines available that, when used judiciously, may be able to restore life and function to an incapacitated patient.
Obviously, there is the risk of serious side effects from opioids, just as there are for any powerful medications. But that is what we are trained to do, to take into account these side effects for each individual patient, to evaluate the risks versus benefits of each treatment, and to monitor them as best we can. That is what my Hippocratic Oath tells me to do.
Now, if only we can get through to the other less misogynistic side of the medical community. The ones with enough courage to speak truth to power. There are some of them in medical schools and ivory towers everywhere, who can recognize injustice and who will speak common sense to our future doctors.