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Fibromyalgia: A Modern Condition That’s Centuries Old

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iStock_000011939132_MediumAlthough the condition has been around for centuries, the term “fibromyalgia” was coined in 1976.  Some sources claim that it can be traced back to Biblical times with the life of Job.  They reference Job 7:3-4, which states, “so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me.  When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss till dawn.”  They also reference Job 30:16-17, which states, “And now my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; my gnawing pains never rest.”[i]  Having studied the book of Job, I am not sure I believe that Job was suffering from fibromyalgia.  However, I am sure many fibromyalgia patients can relate to some of Job’s suffering.

Another person who is believed to have reportedly suffered from fibromyalgia-like symptoms was Florence Nightingale.  Florence Nightingale served as an English army nurse during the Crimean War and was a pioneer in the International Red Cross.  Nightingale became sick working the front lines during the war and never recovered.  She was bedridden the rest of her life with pain and fatigue until her death in 1910.[ii]

In the early 1800’s, doctors wrote about a condition they called rheumatism or muscular rheumatism where the patients experienced symptoms of fatigue, stiffness, aches, pain, and disturbed sleep.[iii]  In 1816, Dr. William Balfour, a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh gave the first real description of the condition we now call fibromyalgia.  He followed that up in 1824 by describing the tender points anyone who deals with this debilitating condition knows so well.  Then in 1880 a United States psychiatrist wrote about a collection of symptoms consisting of fatigue, widespread pain, and psychological disturbances that he termed neurasthenia.  He attributed these symptoms to the “stress of modern life”.[iv]

In 1975 the first electroencephalogram sleep study was performed identifying the sleep disturbances that accompany fibromyalgia.  Then the first controlled clinical study with validation of known symptoms and tender points was published in 1981.  The important concept that fibromyalgia syndrome and other similar conditions are interconnected was proposed in 1984. However, it wasn’t until 1990, when the American College of Rheumatology developed a diagnostic criteria for doing fibromyalgia research, that the term “fibromyalgia” gained wide usage.

Fibromyalgia is like any other Latin medical term, the word itself is its definition.   When you break the word down:  “fibro” means fiber, “myo” means muscle and “algia” means pain.  So the definition of fibromyalgia is basically “Fiber Muscle Pain”.   In the medical world, fibromyalgia is actually defined as “an increasingly recognizable chronic illness condition that is characterized by widespread pain, tenderness, fatigue, stiffness, and sleep disturbances to name just a few symptomatologies.”  Fibromyalgia is all encompassing in its definition; some people can have only part of that definition and still have fibromyalgia.

It’s estimated that 3-7 million Americans have fibromyalgia.  The average person is a 20-40 year old female.  However, it can affect anyone whether male or female at any age.  There are case studies of an 11-year-old boy with the condition and an 80-year-old female.  However, because fibromyalgia has such a debilitating nature, it not only affects the person who has it but everyone around them.  It affects the patient’s family, employers, co-workers, friends, and dependents.  Because fibromyalgia affects everyone in the patient’s circle of influence, fibromyalgia is a condition that can affect whole portions of a population.


[i] New International Version of the Bible

[ii] Small, H  (1948). Florence Nightingale:  Avenging Angel.  London: Constable.

[iii] Williamson, Fibromyalgia: A Comprehensive Approach, (New York: Walker and Company, 1996).

[iv] Williamson, Fibromyalgia.

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