Michelle thought she was working too hard. A rehabilitation consultant in her early thirties, the long hours she was spending at her job were leaving her tired and sore. After taking a couple of months off at the advice of her doctor, she didn’t feel any better. A visit to a specialist provided her with the reason: she had fibromyalgia, a common rheumatic disorder that affects two to three per cent of the general population, and is characterized by widespread pain and a myriad of other side effects, from sleep disturbance to tingling limbs to exhaustion.
‘I was familiar with fibromyalgia, but I thought there was no way I could have it,’ she says. ‘I lived such a healthy, active lifestyle. I thought I just needed more rest, that I would snap out of it. I was in total denial.’ Michelle tried to go back to work part-time, which was ‘a disaster. Pretty soon all I was doing was working and sleeping. I wasn’t grocery shopping, I was losing weight, my house was a mess. I just didn’t have the energy to get those things done. Basically, I was falling apart.’
That was three-and-a-half years ago. Today, Michelle’s reality is very different from what she thought it would be at 35. Her career has been put on hold. Once very active, she has had to give up her hiking, mountain biking and weight training. She volunteers at the Arthritis Learning Centre, which is enjoyable but leaves her exhausted.
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But the hardest part of living with FM? The feeling that life is passing her by-that her friends and contemporaries are getting married, having children and pursuing their careers while she struggles with the basic necessities of life. And then there’s the stigma that still clings to the disorder. ‘I find sometimes people don’t take it seriously because, on the outside, I look okay. I really have the feeling that some of them think it’s all in my head.’
Dr. Patricia Dobkin knows that for FM patients, the pain is very real. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Dobkin is an associate professor in the department of medicine at McGill University in Montreal. She has been working with a team of physicians and health care workers on FM research for four years now. ‘It’s a frustrating disorder for both the physicians and the patients, because there is no known cause, cure or proven medication for it.’
It is believed, though, that regular exercise helps. Dr. Dobkin and her team are conducting a clinical trial, funded by The Arthritis Society, looking at the benefits of individualized home-based exercise programs for FM patients. ‘We’re also looking at how they can build exercise into their lives on an ongoing basis,’ she says.
Michelle can attest to the fact that getting out for a walk does wonders for her spirits. It’s part of the ‘tool kit’ she’s developed to manage her illness, which also includes daily meditation, vitamin supplements, and pacing her activities-things she learned at a self-management course at TAS. ‘Since I was diagnosed, I think my symptoms have stayed the same, but I’ve learned to manage them better.’ Still, she takes things day by day. ‘It’s an ongoing process. I’m never totally pain free; I have good days and bad days. I’m trying to take responsibility for where I am in my life. I don’t have to like it, but I can learn to accept it.’
Source: The Arthritis Society of Canada (online at www.arthritis.ca)