How to Cope With Fibromyalgia Fog

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

My day job in the legal field can be pretty demanding, involving numerous phone calls, emails, deadlines, and other verbal and written communications. Some days, fibromyalgia fog makes my job a whole lot harder. 

Whether it is memory issues, trying to find the right words, misplacing things, or transcribing phone numbers correctly, fibro fog can affect the quality of my work.

It also affects my personal life, sometimes leaving me forgetful, confused, flustered carrying on conversations, and even lost trying get to destinations often traveled.

Fibro fog is the term used to describe the cognitive difficulties associated with fibromyalgia. According to a 2015 review in Rheumatology International, some fibromyalgia patients reported that fibro fog is even more difficult to manage than their pain and fatigue.

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At least half fibromyalgia patients “experience distressing subjective cognitive impairment,” according to a 2015 report in Arthritis Care and Research.  

Fibro fog can cause short term memory loss, distraction, forgetfulness, difficulty in carrying on conversations, inability to process new information and occasional disorientation.  In most cases, fibro fog is a mild symptom, but for some people it can be quite scary, especially for those used to functioning at very high levels.

Fibro fog can leave me temporally disorientated and unable connect my thoughts. My thoughts come in, but they are not being processed correctly, or in a way I can properly put into words. And that can be stressful and frightening.

Causes of Fibro Fog

The reasons for fibro fog are not well understood.  But doctors speculate fibro fog is a result of fibromyalgia patients' inability to get restorative sleep.

"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." 

Non-restorative sleep is the number one sleep issue among fibromyalgia patients. Even after getting a full night's sleep, you may still wake up feeling exhausted, or as if you have not slept at all. Up to 90% of fibromyalgia patients experience non-restorative sleep, according to a 2016 report in the Journal of Pain and Relief by researchers at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan, Italy. These sleep problems can contribute to pain, daytime fatigue, and fibro fog.

"A large percentage of FM patients report sleep disturbance, including difficulties in falling or staying asleep, early morning awakenings and non-restorative sleep," says Maurizio Rizzi, MD, and colleagues. The researchers conclude managing sleep disorders could actually reduce fibromyalgia symptoms, including fibro fog.

Other theories blame pain levels for fibromyalgia fog. When people experience fibromyalgia pain, the belief is that some parts of their brains do not receive enough oxygen, causing confusion and disorientation. Pain also stimulates areas of the brain involved in cognitive tasks. Quite simply, it is just hard to concentrate when you are in pain.

Overexertion, extreme fatigue, stress and side effects of fibromyalgia medications are also blamed for fibro fog.  My fibro fog is worst when I am exhausted, and as a single parent, I have been known to push myself to the point of cloudiness. Overstimulation, such as background noise and fluorescent lights, is also a fibro fog trigger, along with not getting a good night's sleep.  All of these things can make it harder to focus on the things I need to do.

Coping With Fibro Fog

While there are no specific treatments for fibro fog, you can alleviate fibro fog by following your doctor's treatment plan. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to manage specific symptoms.  For example, he or she may prescribe a sleep aid to help improve sleep, and if sleep quality is better, you’ll feel more alert and focused. 

Here are some other strategies for coping with fibro fog.

Get Quality Sleep. Because lack of sleep is a big reason for fibro fog, improving sleep habits may provide relief. For example, try going to bed at the same time every night and get up in the morning at the same time every day. 

Stay Active. Even though you struggle with pain, you should still keep moving. Low impact activities, such as walking, are easy to do. Try to stay active throughout the day by sitting less, taking stairs more often, and parking further away.

Maintain a healthy diet. Cognitive functions do improve when you eat real food. This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat dairy.

Avoid caffeine. Most people think caffeine helps with alertness and awareness. But, caffeine makes symptoms worse for fibromyalgia patients, and contributes to sleep issues. Moreover, it is a stimulant that gives you energy and forces you to crash once it wears off.

Stop stressing. Stress triggers and worsens fibro fog.  Do your best to avoid stressful situations. Try relaxation breathing when you are feeling overwhelmed.

Keep a calendar. A calendar is a lifesaver when you can't think straight.  Keep track of appointments and events on a paper calendar or computer program.  Set timers and alarms as appointment reminders.

Have routines. Having routines for simple tasks helps, too.  For example, you may want to keep your purse, coat, and keys in the same place, so you are less likely to be searching when you need them and fibro fog is making it difficult to think straight.

Don’t Take Life So Seriously

Like most other fibromyalgia symptoms, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to combat fibro fog. It usually requires a combination of strategies and habits to reduce cognitive issues. You will need to try and practice coping strategies until you find what works for you.

Remember to be kind to yourself when you struggle with mental unclarity.  Slow down if you are feeling frustrated and regain focus.  Lastly and most importantly, stop pushing yourself to adjust and just take care of yourself.

I have learned to not take life so seriously and to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about my cognitive struggles. There are plenty of foggy -- yet funny – moments, like when I put my keys in the fridge and the milk in the cabinet.  I can either get depressed or laugh at these silly mishaps.  Taking yourself lightly will give you an emotional boost and put a smile on your face, and there are plenty of good health benefits when you are happier.

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.