As juvenile fibromyalgia becomes a more accepted diagnosis, and as mature students re-evaluate their careers and return to college to study new subjects, fibromyalgia is becoming a more common challenge facing students today. Studying for exams, navigating a big campus, and explaining FM symptoms to instructors and fellow students can be a big challenge. Here we present some tips from students with FM that, we hope, will prove helpful to others as well.
Use the Right Tools
Cora B., a college student in New Mexico, noticed increased pain in her hips, knees, and ankles from walking around a big university campus. When her healthcare provider suggested fitted arch support inserts for her shoes, she decided to give them a try. “They may not have made all the pain from walking go away,” says Cora, 31, “but they have made it where by the end of the day, I still feel like I can walk if I need to.”
Note-taking is a challenge for everyone—some instructors are speed talkers!—but when a student has chronic pain, trying to scribble notes at the speed of talking can be a nightmare. Perhaps typing on a laptop is a good solution for you. Or request permission from your instructors to tape-record their lectures. Knowing that you have the tape to rely on, you can take minimal notes—perhaps only copying down what has been written on the board, instead of attempting to transcribe an entire class session.
Mary Perko, a single mother who works and attends school full-time, uses many adaptive devices, including book holders, a laptop table, wrist braces, and pillows.
“I have asked to sit in the back of the room so that if I become stiff or sore I can stand and stretch without disrupting the other students,” says Heather Angell, a college student in her second year.
Many students recommend talking with instructors about their health issues before they make an impact in the classroom. Provide your instructors with some information about fibromyalgia (the National Fibromyalgia Association website is a great resource), and help them understand which symptoms you experience—and what support you may require from them in order to keep up with your studies successfully.
Andrea Cooper’s daughter Maura Hollister, a high school senior, made arrangements with her teachers to leave her heavy textbooks in certain classrooms so she doesn’t have to lug them around during the day; she can pick them up when they’re needed.
“She also has a standing prescription from her doctor for the school nurse's office to allow her to come to lie down with ice or heat as needed, [and] take meds when she needs them,” Cooper adds. “We have also supplied the school nurse with info about FM and chronic pain, which has sharpened her awareness somewhat.
“Avoiding crowded hallways has at times been an issue, so permission to leave early to navigate w/o rush, as well as a book carrier/helper has been arranged. Most teachers are sympathetic.”
It is very likely that instructors and administrators will be willing to work with you to make the learning experience a successful one. (Sandi Gammon, a sophomore year undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, even discovered that one of her instructors has chronic fatigue syndrome—and got some helpful advice!) But if you encounter resistance, you need to be aware of your civil rights.
Learn about “504 plans.” A 504 plan—a legal document falling under the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—is designed to plan a program of instructional services to assist students with special needs who are in a regular education setting. Students with health issues that impact major life activities—including activities like walking and learning—may be considered for a 504 plan. (You can read more about the civil rights of students under the Rehabilitation Act here.)
By planning ahead and getting a 504 plan put into place for her daughter Kelley, a high school freshman, Annette Freeman was able to ensure that Kelley can take tests in another room, and is allowed extra test time, among other assistance.
You should also learn more about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There are additional details about disability discrimination here.
Investigate School Resources
Gammon discovered that her university offers free counseling to all students—a service she took advantage of after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia earlier this year. “I also found out that our health services offers acupuncture and massage free to students with the student healthcare plan,” she adds. “I have outside insurance and have to pay out-of-pocket, but it's still worth it to be able to get that kind of service on campus.”
“As an older college student, I made sure that I made full use of the Disabled Student's Service office on campus,” says Denise Collins. “They provided me with a note-taker, a table, and a chair with a cushion, and I was given time and a half when I take exams.”
Take a Break
Like so many people with FM, Jennifer Wyatt, 34, was accustomed to living a very full life—attending school full-time, running a business, and running a household with her husband. Now a doctoral student at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., she finds that fibrofog has profoundly impacted her ability to study for long periods of time. \
“One thing that I have found has worked well for me is allowing myself ‘mini-retreats’ from school/studying,” she says. “With every 45 minutes that I study or work at the computer, I take a 10-15-minute break. During that time, I do something completely unrelated to the computer or reading: throw a load of laundry in the wash, watch a bit my favorite HGTV, or even sit quietly on my sun porch with my cat. I always feel more centered and focused when I return to my work.”
Look at the Bright Side
Everyone with fibromyalgia knows that it’s a great idea to listen to their bodies and to pace themselves—but that is often easier said than done. Students have no choice, however. They can’t miss too much class time, nor can they work themselves so hard that they find themselves unable to study. The parameters of the educational system can help students with FM establish the parameters they need to take better care of themselves. As Wyatt says, “Being a graduate student with FM has been challenging, but its also forced me to be more conscious of my wellbeing and self-care.”
Continue—or establish—an exercise regimen. Maintain a healthy diet and drink enough water. Establish a routine of relaxation activities, like yoga or meditation. You are both mind and body; to allow your mind to do all it can throughout your education, you must be sure to keep your body as healthy as you can.