How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Fibromyalgia is diagnosed using guidelines provided by the American College of Rheumatology. You doctor will begin by assessing your symptoms. If you have been experiencing pain throughout the majority of your body for more than 3 months, you may have fibromyalgia. The next step involves identifying tender points. You doctor will quite simply apply pressure to different parts of your body testing for soreness. If you experience discomfort in at least 11 of 18 tender points, then you will mostly likely be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. To be absolutely sure, your doctor may run some blood tests as well. These can't identify fibromyalgia, but they can be used to rule out other possible causes for your symptoms.

To make a diagnosis of fibromyalgia (FM), healthcare providers rely on people's histories, self-reported symptoms, a physical examination and an accurate manual tender point examination. An FM diagnostic blood test from a private company was made available in March of 2013 (Epic Genetics, The Fibromyalgia Test).

There are two clinical fibromyalgia diagnostic criteria available to help healthcare providers make an accurate fibromyalgia diagnosis:

  • The 1990 American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Fibromyalgia Diagnostic Criteria
  • The 2010 ACR Preliminary Diagnostic Criteria
Debra Fulghum Bruce PhD
Healthcare Specialist

A diagnosis of fibromyalgia is determined based on certain signs and symptoms. After doing a patient discussion and physical exam, your doctor may order lab tests. These tests are usually normal as no lab or imaging test can diagnose pain in muscles and soft tissue.

While there is a lack of joint inflammation and swelling with fibromyalgia, people do have persistent widespread musculoskeletal pain and tender (trigger) points over the neck, back, arms and legs. Along with pain and tenderness, there is fatigue, poor quality sleep and morning stiffness.

Persistent pain is often felt in different combinations such as all over pain, back or neck pain and pain in the upper and lower extremities.

Many people with fibromyalgia have other problems such as difficulty concentrating (fibro fog), irritable bowel syndrome with constipation or diarrhea, pelvic pain,  anxiety and depression and restless leg syndrome, among others.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

To diagnose fibromyalgia, your doctor may have to play Dick Tracy, investigating and eliminating other suspects before pointing to fibro as the perp. He or she must carefully consider symptoms, and rule out other diseases that might cause those symptoms. After all, the primary symptoms of fibro—pain, fatigue when you wake up, difficulty concentrating—can happen for many reasons. Your doctor may do a physical exam to check for "trigger points," or may simply ask you about your symptoms. The American Academy of Rheumatology says that if you have pain in many different areas of your body for at least three months, combined with problems like trouble sleeping and feeling wiped-out, that's evidence of fibromyalgia. Your doctor may also do tests for other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis that can also mimic fibro symptoms.

People with fibromyalgia (FM) often see many doctors before being diagnosed. One reason for this may be that pain and fatigue, the main symptoms of FM, also are symptoms of many other conditions. Therefore, doctors often must rule out other possible causes of these symptoms before making a diagnosis of FM. FM cannot be detected by a lab test either.

A doctor who knows about FM, however, can make a diagnosis based upon two criteria: pain in several different areas of your body for at least three months, and being troubled by other symptoms like fatigue and waking up unrefreshed.

If you feel your doctor doesn't know a lot about FM or has doubts about whether it is a "real" illness, see another doctor for a second opinion. Contact a local university medical school or research center for help finding a doctor who has helped others with FM.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Dr. Mihaela B. Taylor, MD

To be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, you must have widespread pain and fatigue for at least three months. Other symptoms may include migraines, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea. All of these symptoms are part of the body's central pain system. Your doctor also will check to make sure your symptoms are not caused by another disorder before diagnosing you with fibromyalgia.

Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine Specialist

There are two separate diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia. The outdated method requires examining 11 of 18 tender points. This criteria is being phased out because most physicians simply to not know how to do a proper tender point exam. Instead, new criteria uses a mix of the key symptoms of widespread pain, nonrestorative sleep, and cognitive dysfunction ("brain fog"), plus the presence of a mix of other symptoms.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.