Confirming the diagnosis of fibromyalgia (FM) is challenging, as there are no blood tests to verify accuracy of the diagnosis like so many other disorders. However, blood tests are needed when FM is suspected to “rule in/out” something else that may be mimicking FM symptoms. Also, FM is often associated with other disorders that are diagnosed by blood testing, so it is still necessary to have that blood test. So what is the CURRENT recommendation for diagnosing FM?
The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) developed criteria for diagnosing FM in 1990 and has updated it since then. The original 1990 criteria included the following: 1) a history of widespread (whole body) pain for three months or more; and 2) the presence of pain at 11 or more of 18 tender points which are spread out over the body. The main criticism regarding this approach has come from the poor accuracy and/or improper methods of testing the 18 tender points. As a result, this examination portion of the two main criteria has been either skipped, performed wrong, or mis-interpreted. This left the diagnosis of FM to be made based on symptoms alone. Also, since 1990, other KEY symptoms of FM have been identified that had previously been ignored including fatigue, mental fog (“cognitive symptoms”), and the extent of the body pain complaints (“somatic symptoms”).
As a result, it has been reported that the original 1990 approach was too strict and inaccurate because too many patients with FM were missed – 25% to be exact – by using this method. In 2010, the diagnostic approach was modified by using two different questionnaires: 1) the “Widespread Pain Index” or (WPI), which measures the number of painful body regions; and 2) the development of a “Symptom Severity” scale (SS). The MOST IMPORTANT FM diagnostic variables included the WPI score and scores of “cognitive symptoms,” which includes the “brain fog” common with FM, unrefreshed sleep, fatigue, and the number of “somatic symptoms” (other complaints). The Symptom Severity scale (SS) incorporates these four categories and is scored by adding the totals from each category. By using both the WPI and the SS, they correctly classified 88.1% of FM cases out of a group of 829 previously diagnosed FM patients and non-FM controls!
What’s important is that this NEW approach does NOT rely on the “old” physical exam requirement of finding at least 11 of 18 tender points. Because FM patients traditionally present with highly variable symptoms, removing the challenge of determining the diagnosis by physical examination is very important! Plus, now we can TRACK the outcomes of the FM patient to determine treatment success both during and after care. Since the 2010 approach has been released, it has been published in multiple languages and is starting to be used in primary care clinics. In July 2013, a study reported that the Modified ACR 2010 questionnaire is highly sensitive and specific for diagnosing FM, and its future use in primary care was encouraged. What is most exciting about this is that a referral to a rheumatologist may not be needed since this tool can be easily administered by primary care physicians, which includes chiropractors!
In past articles, we have discussed the need for a “team” of healthcare providers to best manage the FM patient. This multidisciplinary approach offers the FM patient multi-dimensional treatment strategies that encompass manual therapies, physical therapies, nutritional strategies, pharmacology, exercise, stress management, cognitive management, and behavioral management. Now, with the release of the Modified ACR 2010 criteria, we can diagnose FM more accurately, track progress of the patient, and make timely modifications to the treatment plan when progress is not occurring. This is a “win-win” for the patient, providers/healthcare team, and the insurer!