Does Fibromyalgia Differ Between Men and women?

The so-called “Battle of the Sexes” stretched into fibromyalgia research earlier this month, and it’s no surprise. Men, often under-represented in fibro research, are often thought to be less affected than the typical “over-emotional, over-exaggerated” women.  But, as expected, research shows this old sexist view is incorrect.

The overall impact of fibromyalgia symptoms were measured using validated tools in a recent investigation headed up by Virginia Aparicio, Ph.D., and her research team in Spain.1  Health status, physical function, overall well-being, work missed, work difficulty, pain, fatigue, morning tiredness, stiffness, anxiety, and depression were assessed. From these measurements, Aparicio was able to decipher how each gender is impacted by fibromyalgia.

Differing from most other fibro studies, this one contained a larger sample of 20 male and 79 female patients age-matched with similar characteristics. Using multiple procedures to match the men and women according to height, weight, and body mass index, Aparicio and her team aimed to take a closer look at the differences between the male and female quality of life and set of symptoms. So which faired better?

Perhaps neither. Women with fibromyalgia were found to have less vitality/more fatigue than men. This finding could imply that strength and energy are more dwindled in women, whose metabolic processes can be more demanding. Otherwise, it could mean fibromyalgia symptoms affect the female body in a different way than males.

On the other hand, fibromyalgia created more physical impairments in the men compared to the group of women. The overall impact of the condition was also harder on the men. This coincides with an earlier study conducted by Isabel Ruiz-Perez, M.D., also of Spain, who found, “Men with fibromyalgia had a worse perception of their health” and “more impact of the disease.”2

But the primary symptom of fibromyalgia is pain, although fatigue and physical function are certainly important. “Nevertheless,” says Aparicio, “concerning pain perception, gender differences appear to be low or nonexistent.”

So the question of whether men or women are more impacted by fibromyalgia remains to be determined. The female patients in Aparicio’s study displayed greater fatigue and morning tiredness. Yet it’s not as simple to interpret the study by saying men with fibro are more affected functionally, and women with fibro are more drained of energy. Each person is different, and summing up how one handles such a complex disease is not likely to be that simple.

While Aparicio’s study is still early research on gender differences in fibromyalgia, this study is of growing importance as doctors struggle to treat and monitor both male and female patients. Treatment plans require individual approaches. Men may need to work to aid their physical function, while women may need more focus on reducing the symptom of fatigue. It’s certainly research deserving of more attention.