Fibromyalgia symptoms aren’t limited to physical pain. These tips can help you cope with the feelings of disorientation and forgetfulness that can be part of the condition.
Confused. Forgetful. Can’t concentrate. Mixing up your words. Experiencing short-term memory loss. Many of the 10 million people in the United States with fibromyalgia complain of these cognitive difficulties, commonly referred to as “fibro fog” or “brain fog.”
“I don’t have a percentage to give you,” says Elizabeth Lyster, MD, of the Holtorf Medical Group in Foster City, Calif., “but fibro fog is a very common complaint among patients with fibromyalgia.”
The cause of fibro fog isn’t fully understood. Many believe that it may have to do with fibromyalgia patients’ inability to sleep well. “Therefore they’re chronically fatigued,” says Corey Walker, MD, a rheumatologist at the Intermountain Health Care System in Logan, Utah. “Their minds aren’t rested.” Also, he says, fibromyalgia pain can be debilitating — it’s hard to concentrate when you’re in a lot of pain.
Another theory is that when people have fibromyalgia pain, parts of their brain do not receive enough oxygen, causing confusion or disorientation.
What You Can Do for Fibromyalgia Fog
There are some steps you can take to help alleviate your fibromyalgia symptoms, including feeling as though you’re in a fog:
- Avoid caffeine. “Most people think they’ll feel more alert or more awake with caffeine,” Dr. Lyster says. “However, caffeine can make things worse for people with fibromyalgia.” Even a small amount of caffeine can contribute to sleep disturbances. Also, caffeine is a stimulant, but you can crash when it wears off.
- Use a planner. Keep track of appointments and events in a calendar, either on paper or on your computer. Some computer programs allow you to set alarms to remind you when you need to make a phone call or attend a meeting. Set a kitchen timer to remind you to take the meatloaf out of the oven or pick your daughter up from hockey practice.
- Get in a rut. Establishing routines for simple tasks can help you deal with brain fog. For example, if every time you return home, you put your car keys on a hook by the door before you do anything else, you’re less likely to lose them and you won’t be frustrated trying to remember where they are the next time you have to go somewhere.
- Organize your space. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re surrounded by too much junk — that makes it too easy to get distracted. Throw out things that you no longer need, and store those you do use in their proper place. Removing clutter is a good way to control brain fog.
- Don’t multi-task. It’s very tempting to talk on the phone while making dinner or answer e-mails in between paying bills online. But it is harder to concentrate when you’re trying to do too much at once. Be upfront with your friends and family who may be asking for help when you’re busy doing something else: Tell them you need to do only one thing at a time and will help them as soon as you’re done.
- De-stress. Stress may cause fibro fog to worsen in some people, Lyster says. Susan Ingebretson of Los Angeles finds stress relievers such as yoga or meditation help her overcome fibro fog. “I’m constantly applying stress-relieving modalities to my life, which helps me balance the fibro fog as well as many other fibromyalgia symptoms,” she says.
- Breathe deeply. Ingebretson, 51, finds that if she takes deep breaths and relaxes it helps her considerably. “‘Fibrofolk’ are known to be shallow breathers,” she says. “We also hold our breath when under stress.” She has found that breathing deeply and consistently “does wonders for the brain.”
- Get better sleep. “One of the most important fibromyalgia treatments is getting quality sleep,” Lyster says. To improve sleep, go to bed and wake up the same time every day, even on weekends. Use your bed for sleeping, not reading, watching TV, or working on your laptop. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool so you’re comfortable when you sleep. Some herbal supplements also have shown to be effective in inducing quality sleep, Lyster says.
- Get regular exercise. “Low-impact exercise is helpful,” Dr. Walker says. Exercise not only improves blood flow, but also helps improve sleep, which can help alleviate some of the cognitive difficulties associated with fibromyalgia pain.
- Eat healthy. “I found that nutritional support (meaning actually eating real food) made a huge difference for me,” Ingebretson says. “So did drinking more water.” A healthy diet is one that is rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains and includes lean meats and low-fat dairy. “Stay away from processed foods and sugars and fast foods,” Walker adds.
- Check on your meds. Your treatment for fibromyalgia pain may include medications. Talk to your doctor if you believe your meds are making you confused — a possible side effect. Also, you may want to discuss medications that can help with attention and concentration.
Cognitive difficulties are a common fibromyalgia symptom. But if you take care of yourself — eat healthy, exercise, relax, and try not to overdo — you can better cope with the mental issues associated with this chronic condition.