For the five million people in the U.S. with fibromyalgia, each day can be a struggle. The most commonly reported symptom of this chronic condition is pain focused on nine tender points in the body (mirrored on each side of the body, so 18 points total), but fibromyalgia sufferers also report symptoms such as:
- Muscle tightness
- Inability to concentrate, poor memory (“fibro fog”)
- Exhaustion (lack of both quantity and quality of sleep)
- Sensory sensitivity
- Digestive issues, including irritable bowel disease, Crohn’s, or ulcerative colitis
- Facial or jaw pain
These symptoms can be debilitating. A treatment plan that includes a variety of approaches has the best chance for success. Here are our top 12 ways to manage fibromyalgia.
Flotation REST (reduced environmental stimuli therapy) was developed in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, M.D. and uses a water-filled tank that is approximately the size of a bed and heated to skin temperature. The water is saturated with Epsom salts so that the patient can float without any effort. These “sensory deprivation” pods promote a deep feeling of stress-free relaxation.
Capsaicin, a compound present in hot peppers, can be used as a topical agent to help reduce pain in tender points on the body. This compound increases the pain sensation and then slowly decreases it. Patients may feel a rise in pain intensity at first, and it is important to handle peppers very carefully.
New research indicates some surprises, like lower rates of prescription opioid dependence and related death in states where medical marijuana is legal, but does it help with fibromyalgia pain?
Whether magnesium supplements relieve an underlying deficiency or actually help treat pain is not clear, but many report fibromyalgia (and migraine) relief with just 400-420 milligrams of magnesium a day. In a study published by Korean Medical Science, women with fibromyalgia were found to have significant deficiencies of magnesium, iron, and calcium. If one supplement can help lessen fibro symptoms, it’s worth looking at!
Even when fibro patients start slowly and increase intensity at a snail’s pace, exercise may be the most effective treatment for the pain and other effects of fibromyalgia. Exercise increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain, the same neurotransmitter that regulates mood. People who suffer from fibromyalgia generally have lower levels of serotonin. The good news is that regular exercise helps to increase levels of serotonin, resulting in more feelings of well-being and a general, all-around boost to mood.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) makes sleep elusive, and exhaustion can increase fibromyalgia symptoms. Some studies suggest that people who are predisposed to restless legs syndrome may also be prone to fibromyalgia (and vice versa). Treating the neurologic condition of RLS with antidepressants (a common treatment) may benefit fibro symptoms as well.
Exercise that opens the muscles and joints of the body can improve flexibility, increase mobility, and gradually lessen fibromyalgia pain. Mentally, yoga may help fibro patients use their breath to better cope with painful flare-ups. Budding yogis may also be able to incorporate mindfulness meditation to work through their pain.
Focusing on a healthy diet filled with whole foods can be an important part of a fibromyalgia treatment plan. Getting plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is just the beginning. Inflammatory foods like sugars, fats, and artificial additives can worsen fibro symptoms and should be minimized or eliminated altogether.
Apps for smartphones can help patients track pain flare-ups, diet, and exercise levels to see where the connections are. They can also keep track of weather conditions, duration and intensity of pain, and sleep history. Because so much of treatment and diagnosis relies on patient reporting, this can be a valuable communication tool for doctors and patients.
Some patients with fibromyalgia pain can get the help they need through assistive devices. These devices are products or tools that are designed specifically to assist the patient with day-to-day tasks to provide a path to independence. Many such devices are used by patients with rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic conditions but can easily be adapted to patients with fibromyalgia pain, as many of the day-to-day symptoms are similar.
For managing fibro pain while building strength and endurance, water exercises are one of the most prescribed types of exercise for fibro patients. Water offers both support and resistance at the same time, making each exercise more beneficial without asking the fibro sufferer to support their own body weight. Water exercises allow fibro patients to do weight-bearing exercise (e.g., jogging) without the painful jarring of the joints.
Study after study shows that laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter increases pain tolerance, slows the stress response, and helps people to ignore (at least for a little while) their troubles and pains. Watch a funny movie, try laughing yoga, or go to a comedy club with friends to increase laughter levels.
How do you manage your fibromyalgia?
Image by backpacker01 via Flickr