By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Any physical illness may bring in stress into a relationship. The stress becomes particularly burdensome when the condition is chronic and debilitating because of the extra need for care, changes in lifestyle and adjustments. One such condition is fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic and long term condition that is incurable and associated with symptoms including widespread pain, fatigue, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, inability to get refreshing sleep, waking up tired and stiff and developing cognitive disturbances including lack of concentration and clumsiness, dizziness etc.
There is in addition extreme sensitivity to pain. Patients tend to be sensitive to changes in the weather, to bright lights, noise etc. These symptoms have varying course of severity and come and go over time. Fibromyalgia is not life-threatening and does not reduce life expectancy.
About 10 million people are currently diagnosed with this disorder. Although 9 out of 10 people diagnosed are women, men also get this disorder. The chronic and incurable nature of the condition makes the disease particularly stressful and the condition seriously affects relationships with the partner or spouse.
Fibromyalgia and sex life
Several studies have shown a negative effect of fibromyalgia on the sex lives of women. One of the hypotheses connecting sexual dysfunction and fibromyalgia in women is that the disease process affects the psychological but not the physiological aspect of the sexual response cycle.
This means that the woman may be physiologically normal in terms of sexual response but her psyche and psychological response to sexual activity may be altered.
Further depression and anxiety that go hand in hand with the diagnosis of fibromyalgia may affect sexual relationships significantly.
Understanding what is wrong
One of the major problems of fibromyalgia is the difficulty in pinpointing the exact cause and pathophysiology of the condition. Symptoms are varied, manifestations are different between individuals and there is a large controversy regarding this condition.
Several factions believe fibromyalgia to be more psychological that physical. Underestimating the chronic and severity of this condition may make a spouse unable to empathize or respond to the needs of the sufferer. This affects the relationship between partners severely.
Furthermore, due to the inability to participate in all activities due to the physical needs of the debilitating condition, partners may often perceive the patient as a burden. This is a significant factor because even in its absence, the patient may himself/herself feel a sense of being a burden to his/her partner.
Partner reaction to the disease need not always be indifferent. Some may be overprotective or discouraging of activity that also works negatively in the relationship. This may create a feedback loop and change the perception and behaviour of the patient affecting the patient’s functioning.
Supportive behaviour from the partner improves functioning, provides patient physical adjustment, reduces stress and enhances marital or relationship satisfaction.
Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)
Last Updated: Aug 7, 2013