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New hope for fibromyalgia sufferers

February 1, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
As many as 10 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, a chronic condition most noted by pain and fatigue. Despite a host of symptoms, experts say it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood -- even by doctors. But now, new research is leading to new hope.Phyllis Talarico lives in agony, and has for the past 10 years.

"I get pain that is excruciating," said Phyllis.

Phyllis has fibromyalgia, a syndrome that can present doctors with a baffling set of symptoms. Many, like Lynne Matallana, are often misdiagnosed.

"It took over 37 doctors over a two-and-a-half-year period before I even heard the word 'fibromyalgia,' and started to think maybe there wasn't anything wrong with me, and that I was just imagining these symptoms," said Lynn.

In fact, because of her frustration, Lynn became a patient advocate, eventually co-founding the National Fibromyalgia Association.

Experts say one problem is not all doctors are familiar with the condition. The symptoms are often vague and seem unrelated, and conventional tests typically come back normal.

"It doesn't have any markers to standard blood tests or x-rays. There's nothing in the blood that says, 'I have fibromyalgia.' There's nothing you're going to see on an x-ray," said fibromyalgia researcher Dr. Patrick Wood.

"It's a diagnosis of exclusion. Once you rule out more organic causes, diagnosis of fibromyalgia comes in," said rheumatologist Dr. Dan La.

Fibromyalgia was first identified more than 10 years ago. Yet there are still doctors who question whether the condition exists. Some suggest the symptoms are psychosomatic.

"There are still doctors who feel that," said Dr. La. "From my standpoint, I've seen these patients, some science behind it as well."

The exact cause isn't known, but some experts think stress or genetics may play a role. And while it's considered a muscle and joint condition, the majority of research - like that conducted by Dr. Wood - focuses on the brain.

"Changes in brain chemistry and levels of chemicals, such as dopamine or serotonin, are believed to be implicated," said Dr. Wood.

Recently, the FDA approved Lyrica as the first drug to treat fibromyalgia. Dr La says it's working for half of the patients he's prescribed it for.

Patients hope the FDA's move to approve Lyrica has legitimized the syndrome in the eyes of skeptics.

For Lynne, the new research brings hope.

"There may be new discussions about whether this is real or not, but we know this is a very real illness," said Lynn.

"Doctors are doing so much research, and there will be new treatment options in the future -- and the future is bright," said Dr. Wood.

 

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