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Myths About Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Separating Myth From Fact

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Updated August 29, 2012

Fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are complicated and confusing illnesses. They've been around for decades and we're just beginning to understand them.

A lot of myths abound about these conditions, and they can negatively color the opinions of people around you. Below, you'll learn what some of these myths are as well as the fact.

Myth #1: Wastebasket Diagnoses

Some people believe FMS and ME/CFS are "wastebasket diagnoses," meaning that they're what the doctor diagnoses when they're not able to diagnose anything.

Both of these diagnoses should be based on the patient's history and specific diagnostic criteria, not just thrown out when the doctor is at a loss for answers. Are the labels sometimes misapplied? Possibly. However, responsible doctors use them appropriately.

This myth probably used to be more true than it is now, but its accuracy has diminished as researcher have learned more about these illnesses and the medical community overall has become better educated about them.

More information about diagnosing FMS and ME/CFS:

Myth #2: Made Up By Drug Companies

Now and then online, you come across the opinion that FMS and ME/CFS are made up by drug companies looking to make a buck. (You see this plenty about other illnesses as well.)

First, the way the system is set up, there's really no way a drug company could start touting a product for an illness it had created. To even get approval to start testing, they have to show data suggesting that the drug could help an illness that's already established in medical literature. There's just no way a drug company could go to the FDA and say, "Hey, can we test this drug for XYZ disorder?" and have the FDA respond, "Well, we've never heard of XYZ disorder, but what the heck -- go ahead!"

Second, even if it were possible, this myth doesn't hold up within the context of these illnesses.

In the case of FMS, this set of symptoms has been studied, under a variety of names, since the 1800s. It took more than a century for the FDA to approve a drug to treat it. (Lyrica (pregabalin) got the long-awaited stamp of approval in 2007.)

The cluster of symptoms now known as ME/CFS also was identified in the 19th century. The first name for it – neurasthenia – was coined in 1869. As of mid-2012, not a single drug had been approved to treat this condition.

If FMS and ME/CFS were some kind of drug-company conspiracy, they're spectacular failures!

More information on drug treatments for FMS and ME/CFS:

Myth #3: Not Real Diseases

Some people like to throw around that FMS and ME/CFS aren't "real diseases." Technically, this is true. However, this phrase is usually due to a misunderstanding of what the terms "disease" and "syndrome" mean.

FMS and ME/CFS are classified as syndromes, which means they are recognized as clusters of signs and symptoms that appear together and suggest a particular abnormality, but without a known cause. A lot of illnesses are initially classified as syndromes. Then, when researchers discover the cause, they're re-classified as diseases.

Being a syndrome doesn't mean that an illness is less severe; it means that it is less understood. No one doubted the severity of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) back before scientists understood the central mechanism.

By the same token, people shouldn't see the word "syndrome" and assume that FMS or ME/CFS aren't legitimate or serious illnesses.

More information about the nature of FMS and ME/CFS:

Myth #4: Just Laziness

A common misconception is that FMS and ME/CFS aren't illnesses at all but are just "laziness." They're sometimes even referred to as "lazy person syndrome."

People tend to assign this label when they believe someone is choosing not to be gainfully employed, or to go on Social Security disability rather than have a job.

However, it doesn't take long in chat rooms to find people talking about how much they miss their jobs, how hard they work to keep their jobs, or agonizing about the possibility of having to apply for disability.

A likely factor in this myth is that in many cases, symptoms wax and wane significantly. Someone may appear healthy one day then say they can't get out of bed the next. It's confusing, certainly, but it's the nature of the beast.

Most people with FMS and ME/CFS, as well as with any illness, would gladly trade being sick for working hard.

More information about symptoms of FMS and ME/CFS:

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