The Brain

Headaches. Memory problems. Depression. At the root of all these symptoms is the brain, your body's command central for all bodily functions. It should come as no surprise that fibromyalgia takes a profound toll on your head. Whether it's cognitive problems or persistent headaches, your brain may experience problems related to fibromyalgia.

Fibro Fog

Almost everyone has flashes of confusion. Misplacing that all-important car key. Going into a room for a reason that escapes you. Losing your car in a parking lot with no memory of where you left it. But for some people who have fibromyalgia, this confusion leads to a condition affectionately known as fibro fog. With fibro fog, you have difficulty remembering familiar facts, focusing, and concentrating. Fibro fog can make it hard for you to do your job, perform daily tasks, and follow simple directions.

Studies show that fibromyalgia patients who report poor memory demonstrate it on tests that measure recall. In fact, one study has shown that people with FMS do no better on cognitive performance tests than people who are twenty years older — though they perform just as well as healthy peers on tests that measured speed of cognition.

Chances are that poor sleep contributes to fibro fog. Experts suspect that people with fibromyalgia may also be getting less oxygen into their brains. Other possible causes include depression, a malfunction in the central nervous system, and certain medications. For some people, like Nancy, these cognitive challenges are the most frustrating symptoms of all.

Nancy describes fibro fog as “swimming through Jell-O.” In the last two years, fibro fog has been her most challenging symptom. When she's in the throes of it, Nancy cannot recall simple words. She cannot remember her best friend's name, even when she's looking at her. Making decisions becomes impossible because she cannot even put two and two together. She tries to keep lists to help her remember. But some days Nancy can't even remember where she put the list. The severity of her cognitive problems, she says, is directly correlated to her pain and fatigue. The worse her pain and fatigue, the worse her fibro fog is.

Getting a handle on fibro fog requires minimizing your pain and fatigue. That means trying to get a good night's sleep and reducing stress. If your memory problems are severe, however, you may need professional help. When you're in the throes of a bout of fibro fog, try the following tips:

  • Make lists for everything. Whether it's a grocery list or a to-do list, jot down specifically what you need.

  • Keep your lists in places you can remember.

  • If necessary, take notes when meeting with people, such as your boss or your doctor.

  • Use strategically placed sticky notes to help you remember.

Depression

It's easy to understand why a chronic illness like fibromyalgia can bring on depression. The constant pain, lack of sleep, and persistent fatigue can devastate even the most cheerful people. As a result, you may start to feel hopeless and sad, which can spiral into full-blown depression.

Although everyone gets sad from time to time, serious depression is a mental illness that can cause tremendous pain and suffering. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, almost 19 million people suffer from a depressive illness in a given year, or 9.5 percent of the population. Women are affected twice as often as men.

Of course, it's entirely normal to feel sad about having fibromyalgia, just as it is when you lose your job, a loved one, or a pet. The grief is a reaction to a downturn in your life. But distinguishing depression from the blues isn't easy. Many of its signs and symptoms are easily blamed on stress, fatigue, and a hectic lifestyle. As a result, depression often goes unrecognized. Left untreated, depression can worsen your fibromyalgia, weaken your immune system, and destroy your quality of life.

The key is the intensity of the symptoms and the duration of the problem. Depression is also accompanied by a pervasive sense of helplessness and hopelessness. When you lose interest in activities you normally enjoy, it might signal that something is wrong, especially if the lethargy lasts for more than two weeks. And if you're feeling so bad about yourself that you can no longer get along with loved ones or colleagues, then your depression is starting to interfere with your functioning. Here's a checklist to help you determine whether you have depression. If any of these problems persists for two weeks or more, you may need professional attention:

  • Frequent sadness, often accompanied by crying

  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness

  • Loss of interest in things that normally bring you pleasure

  • Irritability

  • Difficulties getting along at work and at home

  • Trouble concentrating and forgetfulness

  • Unexplained physical complaints, such as headaches and stomach pains

  • Changes in appetite

  • Changes in the amount of sleep you get

  • Thoughts of suicide

Depression can be hazardous and make it harder for you to take care of yourself. Don't take depression lightly — it is the most serious complication of fibromyalgia because it can create suicidal thoughts. Call your physician immediately if you or those who care about you suspect you're depressed.

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