Finding the Right Doctor to Treat Fibromyalgia

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Numerous studies show patients have better health outcomes when they have a doctor they trust and who listens to their health concerns.  Further, patients who trust their doctor are more likely listen to their advice and be compliant with treatment.

According to a 2014 breakdown of 13 clinical studies, a good doctor-patient relationship can have significant effects on positive health outcomes. The research, published in the PLOS One online journal, looked at studies where doctors were randomly assigned to either practice their normal care methods or take additional training to provide more empathy and patient focused care. The health benefits of patient focused care showed measurable results towards better patient outcomes. 

"The patient-clinician relationship has a small, but statistically significant effect on healthcare outcomes,” the researchers found.  

If you think you might have fibromyalgia, you will need to work closely with your doctor to diagnose and treat it.  You want a doctor who is knowledgeable about fibromyalgia and treatment options, including medicinal and non-medicinal therapies. 

In addition, your doctor should be someone you can confide in when you have concerns about treatments, symptoms, pain and lifestyle.

What Doctors Treat Fibromyalgia?

The American College of Rheumatology’s (ACR) updated fibromyalgia diagnostic criteria has made it easier for medical professionals to learn about the diagnosis and management of fibromyalgia. Still, not every doctor understands fibromyalgia, so it is important to find one who is up-to-date on the latest treatment and research. 

The following doctors can treat fibromyalgia:

Rheumatologists. Rheumatologists treat arthritis and other diseases of the bones, joints and muscles. This includes fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and autoimmune arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

Neurologists. A neurologist diagnoses and treats patients with nervous system disorders. Researchers have long speculated fibromyalgia is the result of a pain processing disorder, which causes amplified pain that shoots through the bodies of sufferers. 

"Because pain pathways throughout the body are amplified in fibromyalgia patients, pain can occur anywhere, so chronic headaches, visceral pain and sensory hyper-responsiveness are common in people with this painful condition," said Daniel Clauw, MD, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan.

Neurologists might be in the best position to treat fibromyalgia, as they are able to narrow down pain and symptoms and treat them more specifically. 

Pain Specialists.  Pain specialists are experts in diagnosis and treatment of chronic pain.  They offer a variety of treatments that include both medical and psychological therapies.  They generally work in private pain management clinics or as part of pain treatment centers in hospitals and university medical centers.

Family Practice Doctors and Internists. Traditionally, fibromyalgia fell under the scope of rheumatologists. These days, however, family practice doctors and general internists are seeing more patients with fibromyalgia.

Finding the Right Doctor

Here are a few tips to find the right doctor to treat your fibromyalgia:

Support Groups. Local fibromyalgia or arthritis support groups are great places for referrals to someone who treats fibromyalgia. 

Don’t limit yourself to rheumatologists.  While the ACR's rheumatologist search is a great resource, there is no reason to limit yourself.  Rheumatologists generally have demanding patient loads and it could take months to get in for an appointment. 

Check with pain clinics. Pain clinics may treat fibromyalgia patients separately from pain management.  They also provide referrals to fibromyalgia specialists.

Call your insurance company. Your insurance company may have a list of health care providers   covered by your policy that will also include doctors who treat fibromyalgia.

Your family practice doctor. Your family doctor likely knows someone who specializes in fibromyalgia treatment. He or she may also be qualified to treat you.

Ask around. Someone you trust, such as a loved one or co-worker, may know a fibromyalgia doctor.  You may also find someone else who is living with fibromyalgia.

Hospital websites. Hospital websites offer directories of medical providers on their websites.  They share doctor resumes and expertise, which may include experience in treating fibromyalgia.

My Experience Finding the Right Doctor

Because fibromyalgia is still controversial in the medical community, finding an informed doctor can help you to get the best control of your situation, the medical help you need, and relief for pain and symptoms. 

My current treating doctor -- a rheumatologist -- understands that our doctor-patient relationship is a partnership.  She respects my time, never makes me feel rushed and answers my questions.  Moreover, she is knowledgeable about my diagnosis, treatment plan and lifestyle, and doesn’t rely on my chart for answers.   But I didn’t always have a doctor I trusted, who listened and addressed my concerns.

In 2009, I didn’t know what a successful doctor-patient relationship looked like. I had a doctor who dismissed my worries, felt fibromyalgia could only be treated with diet, exercise, and anxiety medications, and did not want to hear how fibromyalgia affected my life as a young mother in my early 30s.  After that first miserable year with fibromyalgia, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted a healthy and thriving life, I would first have to find the right person to treat me.

Experience has taught me the relationship I have with my fibromyalgia doctor is the main determinant of how successful my treatments will be.   That first fibromyalgia doctor told me I'd be disabled within four years, but it has been over eight years and I am not disabled and still able to work and care for my family.  I know this couldn’t be possible if I continued to see that doctor. 

Finding a doctor who understands fibromyalgia may take time, but don’t get discouraged. Look for a doctor who is knowledgeable about fibromyalgia, believes in team work, is empathetic and who listens. 

And if you find yourself with one that isn't a good fit, as I did, it is okay to look for someone else. But keep the current one until you find someone new.

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.