What you can do for your fibromyalgia patient


Fibromyalgia may seem like a nebulous diagnosis, with its array of symptoms and pain refractory to medications. But fibromyalgia is a defined syndrome of neuronal dysregulation. It can be diagnosed from the history and physical examination and managed in a primary care setting.


A 43-year-old woman presents to her primary care physician with multiple complaints: pain in all joints and in her back and hips, swelling of her hands and feet, morning stiffness, chest pain and shortness of breath (not necessarily related to exertion), fatigue, generalized weakness, headaches, difficulty with memory and concentration, dry mouth and dry eyes, feeling weak and faint in the sun, cold intolerance with purple discoloration of her extremities, a self-described “butterfly” rash on the face, and hair that is thinning and falling out in clumps.

Because many of her symptoms could reflect an inflammatory process or an autoimmune disease, 1 her primary care physician orders multiple tests. Her C-reactive protein level, Westergren sedimentation rate, complete blood cell count, and comprehensive metabolic panel are normal. Urinalysis shows trace leukocyte esterase. Indirect immunofluorescence assay on human laryngeal tumor (HEp-2) cells is positive for antinuclear antibody (ANA), with a titer of 1:320 (reference range ≤ 1:40) and a nuclear dense fine-speckled pattern. 

In view of the positive ANA test, the patient is informed that she may have systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and will be referred to a rheumatologist. In the days before her rheumatology appointment, she becomes extremely anxious. Obsessively researching SLE online, she becomes convinced that SLE is the correct diagnosis.

Rheumatology evaluation

The rheumatologist assesses the patient’s pain and reports the following:

Location and duration: Hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, upper and lower back, sides of hips, knees, and feet; has been ongoing for 10 years, but worse in the past 3 months.

Character: The patient describes her pain as “like an ice pick being driven through my joints,” “sometimes unbearable,” and “like being hit by a truck.” She also reports numb, tingly, burning pain in her upper neck and back.

Variation with time, activity, and weather: Worse at night, causing her to wake and toss and turn all night; better with exertion, but after activity or exercise, she is exhausted for the rest of the day and sometimes for up to a week; worse with weather changes, especially during cold or humid weather.

Associated symptoms: Occasional perceived swelling of hands and feet, especially upon wakening in the morning, and 2 to 3 hours of stiffness in the morning that sometimes lasts all day.

Physical examination. Her findings are inconsistent with her symptoms.

The patient exhibits limited range of motion. When asked to bend forward, rotate her neck, or flex and extend her neck and back, she does so only slightly. However, passive range of motion is normal in all joints.

When her joints are examined, she anticipates pain and withdraws her hands. But when she is distracted, examination reveals no evidence of swollen joints or synovitis. She has tenderness in 12 of 18 tender points. Her peripheral pulses are good, strength is normal, and reflexes are brisk.


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Author and Disclosure Information

Carmen E. Gota, MD
Staff, Department of Rheumatologic and Immunologic Disease, and Director, Fibromyalgia Clinic, Orthopaedic and Rheumatologic Institute, Cleveland Clinic; Assistant Professor, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH

Address: Carmen Gota, MD, Department of Rheumatologic and Immunologic Disease, A50, Cleveland Clinic, 9500 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44195; gotac@ccf.org

Medical Grand Rounds articles are based on edited transcripts from Medicine Grand Rounds presentations at Cleveland Clinic. They are approved by the author but are not peer-reviewed.


Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine - 85(5)


Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine


Rheumatology Women's Health Pain Sleep Medicine

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Legacy Keywords

fibromyalgia, lupus, pain, functional disorder, allodynia, hyperalgesia, antinuclear antibody, ANA, SLE, sleep, mood, exercise, drama, catastrophize, Carmen Gota

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What you can do for your fibromyalgia patient