For years, many people had never heard of fibromyalgia. Those who experienced its confusing myriad of symptoms often wandered from doctor to doctor, unsure of why so many different diagnoses seemed to fit their condition or why none of the treatments seemed to work.
Today, thankfully, medical professionals recognize fibromyalgia for what it is—a chronic condition that is characterized by painful, stiff joints, as well as extreme fatigue.
As more people learn about and discuss fibromyalgia, patients—as well as their friends and family—are developing a better understanding of the condition, what it means for sufferers, and what treatments and coping mechanisms are helpful to combat its symptoms.
Although fibromyalgia is becoming more well-known, many people mistakenly think of it as being a disease akin to arthritis; they think of it as something that only causes joint pain.
Others may know about its other common symptoms (such the frustrating inability to focus or think straight known as “fibro fog” or the chronic fatigue that many fibromyalgia patients experience).
However, other symptoms aren’t as well-known and might even have fibromyalgia patients second-guessing whether what they are experiencing is caused from their fibromyalgia or something else altogether.
Can’t Breathe? You’re Not Alone
One of the less-publicized, albeit common, symptoms of fibromyalgia is shortness of breath. A study found that roughly half of fibromyalgia patients experienced dyspnea, or shortness of breath.
The study showed that the participants felt out of breath even though they were actually breathing in a normal volume of air. Their blood oxygen levels were also normal.
Researchers are not sure whether the sensation of being out of breath is due to pain in the chest muscles or if it is due to abnormal function in fibromyalgia patients’ brain stems (which may be telling their diaphragms to contract at inappropriate times).
Chest pain is also extremely common in fibromyalgia sufferers, leading many to believe that their shortness of breath may be caused by taking short, shallow breaths (in reaction to feeling pain whenever breathing in).
This kind of breathing can happen without the subject even being aware of it, and it can cause a sensation of shortness of breath, as well as dizziness and anxiety.
Since anxiety attacks are very common with people who experience symptoms of fibromyalgia, sufferers should be aware that one symptom can be tied to (or trigger) another.
First Things First
The first step for anyone who is experiencing shortness of breath (whether they have fibromyalgia or not) is to go see a doctor. As shortness of breath can be a symptom of a number of health problems, your doctor will rule those out.
A doctor who has experience with treating fibromyalgia patients will also be knowledgeable about medications and treatments that might help relieve fibromyalgia symptoms that might be causing the patient to out of breath.
For instance, since tightness in the chest (as well as shortness of breath) can be caused by extreme anxiety, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can help.
There are also a number of pain medications that work to specifically target fibromyalgia pain, which can be useful if pain in the chest wall is causing the patient to unknowingly take shallow breaths.
Managing and Preventing Shortness of Breath
The sensation of not being able to get your breath can be distressing and frightening. Anxiety can cause a further constriction of the chest, creating more trouble breathing…which creates more anxiety.
This is a dirty cycle. For people who are experiencing shortness of breath as a result of fibromyalgia, breathing, relaxation and meditation exercises can be helpful.
While doing breathing exercises, it’s important to breathe deeply, expanding your diaphragm. Thinking of this as “belly breathing” helps; as you breathe in, your belly—not your chest!—should expand and rise.
Inhale through your nose, slowly, for about five seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth for seven seconds. Those who are new to breathing exercises may feel a bit dizzy at first.
The length of the inhalation and exhalation can be shortened if need be. With practice, you’ll be able to inhale and exhale more slowly without feeling lightheaded.
Relaxation techniques can also be helpful when experiencing shortness of breath. One such technique is progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing all of the muscle groups throughout the body.
Starting with the muscles in your feet, tense them—squeezing your toes together—for five seconds, and then relax them. Next, do the same with your calf muscles, and then your thighs.
Continue moving upwards until you reach your neck, then the muscles of your face. This exercise is effective because it temporarily takes attention off of the shortness of breath, while also promoting relaxation in the body (which helps naturally slow the breathing).
Those who experience fibromyalgia symptoms—and particularly anxiety-inducing symptoms such as shortness of breath, can also benefit from daily meditation.
Meditation eases both body and mind and—when used in tandem with treatment for chronic pain conditions—can help reduce pain levels. There are a variety of meditation techniques; the key is finding the one that is most comfortable and works the best for you.
Meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting in one spot and chanting (which can be hard for someone who is already stressed and anxious). One technique to try is a walking meditation.
Go outside and walk around. As you walk, feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice all the details of how it feels—how your feet are touching the ground and different sensations you feel, such as the hardness or softness of the ground beneath you or the way your socks feel as you move.
If your mind drifts to other things (or begins to worry), simply take your focus back to the feeling of your feet on the ground and the sensation of your walking. With practice, you will be more able to control your attention and the meditation will become easier.
No matter what technique you use to calm yourself, simply knowing that the shortness of breath is fibromyalgia-related is a step in the right direction Through working to control your pain and your stress level, shortness of breath can be lessened and better managed.