Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by a generalized, aching pain. About 3.7 million Americans or 5 percent of the population suffer from fibromyalgia, mostly occurring in women of childbearing age. Although this disease was first identified in the early 1900s, it was actually thought to be a form of rheumatism until recently. Still, little is known about the cause or cure of fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia symptoms include aches and stiffness in the soft tissues such as the muscles, tendons (which attach muscles to bone) and ligaments (which attach bones to each other). The pain can occur in any region of the body and may be either widespread or affect only a specific area. Women typically experience more widespread pain, while men tend to develop fibromyalgia symptoms in only one area, such as the shoulder. Although the condition itself is not life-threatening, the fibromyalgia symptoms can cause a great deal of distress.
Causes and Symptoms
The actual cause remains elusive, but it is believed that certain events may trigger the onset of fibromyalgia. For example, viral or bacterial infections, automobile accidents, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have all been associated with the onset of fibromyalgia. Some researchers believe that there are abnormalities in the brain affecting hormones and brain chemical activity. Other researchers suspect that patients with fibromyalgia have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a chemical that acts as a messenger between nerve cells), or a possible defect in the system that regulates serotonin levels.
Fibromyalgia symptoms typically develop gradually in a person in their 20s, and they may come and go in cycles.
- Pain. The pain that most people experience has been described as a deep muscular aching that burns, throbs or feels like a stabbing pain. The pain and stiffness is often worse in the morning.
- Fatigue. The feeling of being drained of energy and unable to concentrate can vary from mild to incapacitating.
- Difficulty sleeping. Sleep does not feel refreshing and you wake up feeling exhausted.
- Chemical sensitivities. About 50 percent of fibromyalgia patients experience sensitivities to noise, bright lights, odors, medications and certain foods.
- Chronic headaches. Headaches similar to migraines or tension headaches occur in about 50 percent of patients.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome. From 40 to 70 percent of patients experience diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain and gas.
Other symptoms may include dizziness or lightheadedness, menstrual cramping, jaw pain, and numbness and tingling sensations.
Physicians have a difficult time diagnosing fibromyalgia as the symptoms are very common to other conditions. In order to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a person must have widespread pain in four quadrants of their body for a minimum of three months. In addition, they must also have tenderness in at least 11 of 18 specific areas.
Suggested Lifestyle Changes for Fibromyalgia Treatment
There are several lifestyle and therapeutic methods for managing fibromyalgia.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity has been found to be one of the most effective fibromyalgia treatment methods. Although muscle pain may increase during exercise, the pain usually dissipates within 30 minutes. Stretching and low-impact aerobic activity (swimming, walking, yoga, or using cardiovascular machines like stationary bikes or elliptical trainers) are most effective.
- Establish regular sleeping habits. This is critical for reducing pain and improving energy and mood.
- Use relaxation techniques. Studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia benefit from regularly using techniques like meditation, yoga or breath work to counteract stress.
- Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy. This therapy can teach you new ways to cope with fibromyalgia symptoms and stress.
- Try acupuncture or massage for fibromyalgia treatment.
- Try the Feldenkrais Method. These gentle movement exercises help correct poor posture or habits of movement that may contribute to pain.
Nutrition and Supplements
Try the following if you have fibromyalgia:
- Eat well. A diet rich in organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will fortify your body's natural defenses and healing system.
- Eliminate polyunsaturated vegetable oils, margarine, vegetable shortening, all partially hydrogenated oils, and all foods (such as deep-fried foods) that might contain trans-fatty acids. Use extra-virgin olive oil as your main fat.
- Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eat ginger and turmeric regularly.
- Take supplements. In addition to a daily antioxidant regimen, take 250 mg of magnesium and 500-700 mg of calcium daily to help relax and maintain nerves and muscles. (However, I don't recommend calcium supplements for men.) Boswellia and malic acid have also been reported to be beneficial as a fibromyalgia treatment.
For more information, read Dr. Weil's other articles about fibromyalgia symptoms and fibromyalgia treatment.