a woman at risk for fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia Risk Factors

Fibromyalgia is a medical condition that causes chronic, widespread pain throughout muscles and joints. Although the mechanisms of this disorder are not well understood, research shows that some people are more likely than others to develop fibromyalgia. There are several factors that increase a person's risk for being diagnosed.

Age and Gender

The vast majority of fibromyalgia diagnoses occur for people between the ages of 20 and 50. Fibromyalgia also shows much higher prevalence among females: Women may be eight to nine times more likely to be diagnosed. The exact reasons for the relatively high incidence in women are not known, but some researchers speculate that differences between male and female neurotransmitter patterns in the brain may play a part.

Family History

You are statistically more likely to be diagnosed yourself if a relative has been diagnosed. It is currently unknown whether fibromyalgia is inherited, but research shows that the odds of you developing fibromyalgia are several times higher if a member of your immediate family has it. Recent studies even demonstrated the existence of genes that may be responsible for the higher rates of chronic pain conditions in some families, but these findings are still being investigated.

Related Diseases

Fibromyalgia falls into a class of medical conditions called rheumatic diseases, all of which involve some type of pain or inflammation in the joints. If you have one or more pre-existing rheumatic conditions, you're more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Some examples of rheumatic conditions associated with fibromyalgia are rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and lupus. In fact, if you go to the doctor complaining of chronic widespread pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia, you will likely be tested for many possible rheumatic conditions. 

Stress

It's possible that stress and lack of exercise can increase the risk for fibromyalgia. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and pain sensitivity. Persistent stress can deplete serotonin levels in the brain, and exercise helps to restore those levels. High stress and low physical activity can thus lead to varying degrees of serotonin deficiency, an effect that may explain both the increased sensitivity to pain and why depression seems much more prevalent in patients with fibromyalgia.

Sleep

Although lack of sleep and sleep disturbance are often called symptoms of fibromyalgia, nighttime restlessness, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders may actually start long before fibromyalgia is considered. Researchers theorize that sleep deprivation lowers pain threshold, and experiments with real people demonstrated that less sleep means less pain tolerance.

Other Factors

If you have a history of surgeries, brain trauma, spinal cord injury or infection, menopause, or periods of extreme psychological trauma, you may be more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Last Updated: June 15, 2016