Fibromyalgia is believed to be responsible for the mysterious pain and fatigue of more than 5 million Americans, mostly women. It is an elusive and complicated syndrome whose cause is yet to be identified. It shows no outward signs and does not turn up on any tests. Fibromyalgia is an invisible process, but its sufferers know that it is very real. Scientists are only just beginning to solve the mystery, but there are still a number of things you can do right now to help treat your fibromyalgia pain.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal disorder characterized by unexplained widespread pain throughout the body. People with fibromyalgia usually describe the pain as being mild or moderate, dull, persistent, and hard to pinpoint, but generally experience soreness in the neck and shoulders, and the hips and lower legs. A handful of other complaints often accompany fibromyalgia as well, such as insomnia, irritable bowel, mental fogginess, and profound fatigue. Together, these symptoms can make fibromyalgia debilitating, a fact that is complicated by its mysterious nature.
Doctors don’t know what actually causes fibromyalgia. In fact, until recently, most complaints were dismissed by medical professionals, since pain and fatigue are vague symptoms that are difficult to assess, and fibromyalgia produces no physical signs to point the way.
Modern interest in the disorder has begun to produce more dedicated research. Current theories suggest that conditions that chronically stimulate nerves may actually alter the way people’s brains process and experience pain. Things like chronic stress, a serious infection, or a longstanding injury may “rewrite” nerve pathways within the muscle to make once unnoticed stimuli become painful, chronic irritations. This makes sense, since the usual accompanying sleep and G.I. symptoms are also known to be affected by chronic physical and mental stressors.
While the jury is still out on the causes, there is some reassuring news; though miserable, fibromyalgia is not dangerous, nor progressive. It won’t continually get worse and worse, and it won’t injure you. It can, however, become more persistent if it is not properly addressed.
How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia symptoms present much like any other musculoskeletal complaints. Sometimes the complicated relationship between diffuse pain, depression, and irritable bowel is overlooked, and you may end up three separate diagnoses instead, none of which may address the real problem.
Fortunately, fibromyalgia pain has come into the spotlight now, and an increasing number of medical professionals are both recognizing its pattern and taking the symptoms more seriously.
Fibromyalgia is diagnosed by first ruling out more serious clinical scenarios, such as major depression or rheumatoid arthritis. After that, a final determination is made by your pattern of symptoms.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
1) Diffuse, persistent pain, not caused by a specific injury, lasting three months or more.
2) Profound fatigue, especially after waking.
3) Specific tender points, arranged symmetrically along the body. These points are very sensitive when touched, and are located at the base of the skull, the top of the shoulders, the inner aspect of the elbows, the inner aspect of the knees, and the top, outer portions of the buttocks and hips.
4) Depression and/or anxiety.
5) Recurrent G.I. symptoms, such as constipation or diarrhea.
There is no cure for fibromyalgia, since it is a syndrome and not a specific disease. Since the cause is yet undetermined, doctors are sometimes at a loss as to how to treat fibromyalgia. A few medications are available to help with suspected nerve pain or serotonin-based muscle pain, such as Lyrica, gabapentin, or Cymbalta.
Your doctor will also likely prescribe home remedies to address symptoms, such as exercise for strength and stress reduction, as well as heat or ice for muscle aches. Ibuprofen is useful, even though fibromyalgia does not appear to be inflammatory in nature.
Alternative Therapies for Fibromyalgia Pain Relief
Fibromyalgia is more miserable than dangerous. Sometimes the best approach is to avoid triggers and mitigate symptoms when they arise. This is where holistic and alternative medicine shines. Alternative, or integrative, medicine is based on the principle that patients should receive therapies that focus on whole-body wellness rather than just treating a single symptom. Alternative medicine utilizes plant-based and ancient practices to achieve wellness, while integrative medicine, an increasingly popular study, blends modern medical science with holistic principles. Integrative MDs often know how to treat fibromyalgia better than their conventional peers.
Some reliable alternative therapies to try for alleviating your fibromyalgia symptoms:
Acupuncture - Used in China for millennia to treat any number of maladies, acupuncture is a harmless and incredibly effective method for reducing stress and depression, improving sleep quality, and, above all, reducing chronic pain. Tiny, hair-thin needles are strategically aligned along energy lines customized to relieve virtually any complaint. Science has never quite explained acupuncture’s remarkable effects, but they are well documented enough for services to be covered by many insurance plans.
Yoga - Yoga is famous for its transformational powers. Fibromyalgia symptoms seem to strike hardest when chronic stress is a factor. Yoga, centered around mindful relaxation, is the ultimate stress reliever. What’s more, yoga practitioners enjoy increased core strength and flexibility, both important for alleviating muscle pains.
Essential oils - These oils are extracted from plants whose properties are associated with certain therapeutic effects. There are several essential oils that may be helpful with fibro pain:
Ginger - Ginger can be used in tea or rubbed into the skin over painful areas to help alleviate both G.I. irritability and muscle aches.
Lavender - Easily the most popular and widely used essential oil, lavender is very effective at reducing stress and anxiety and promoting longer, more restful sleep. Use it in a hot bath prior to bedtime, spray it onto your pillow, or use it in combination with yoga or stretching exercises.
Peppermint oil - This potent oil is very good at doing two things; reducing acid reflux and lower G.I. issues, and eliminating headaches and muscular neck pain. Apply a little oil to the temples and back of the neck for immediate pain relief. Beware, though...peppermint oil is irritating to the skin and needs to be diluted before any direct skin application.
Black pepper - Touted as an effective cure for muscular pain, black pepper essential oil can be either massaged into sore muscles or added to steamy water for inhalation. Like peppermint, it’s a bit caustic, so add only a few drops to avocado or coconut massage oil before applying to bare skin.
Herbal supplements -
Turmeric / curcumin - A traditional spice used in Indian foods, turmeric has been discovered in the last few years to contain a powerful anti-inflammatory component, a substance known as curcumin, that is almost as effective for pain as ibuprofen.
Valerian root - This mild herb is a distant cousin of Valium, and can likewise offer stress relief and improved sleep quality, but without the side effects. Lower doses during the day can alleviate anxiety, and higher doses at night are mildly sedative.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) - This amino acid is used to synthesize serotonin, the neurotransmitter in the brain that plays the central role in a complex relationship between depression, sleep cycles, and the experience of pain. Decreased serotonin levels are suspected in playing a role in fibro pain.
Vitamin B12 - B12 can help with the two biggest factors affecting people with fibromyalgia - pain and fatigue. This supplement is already used for treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, which shares many features (and possibly the same cause) as fibromyalgia. The sublingual tabs have a better absorption than the pills.
When all else fails…...
If symptoms and pain become too much and your current therapies are not helping, you may need to consult with a pain management doctor. Pain doctors specialize in rooting out and treating the underlying causes of severe pain. Look for a board-certified pain specialist who has good patient reviews, preferably one that specializes in neuromuscular pain.
The pain of fibromyalgia is real, even if it exhibits no obvious signs to the outside world. If you suspect fibro is to blame for your chronic complaints, be sure to seek medical help from a practitioner who will take your symptoms seriously.