Alternative Treatments for Fibromyalgia
Interested in adding complementary therapies to your fibromyalgia treatment plan? Here are four options to consider.
By Gina Roberts-Grey
Medically Reviewed by Ed Zimney, MD
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Although experts say there is no magic bullet to permanently knock out all the symptoms of fibromyalgia, they are increasingly positive about the beneficial effects that certain alternative therapies can have on patients' key complaints of fibromyalgia: pain and fatigue.
Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, Inc. (FFC), and a fibromyalgia researcher, says when it comes to a complicated chronic condition such as fibromyalgia, patients should explore a variety of options for alleviating their symptoms and controlling their fibromyalgia: "Often a combination of approaches, including over-the-counter or prescription medicines as well as alternative treatments, is the most effective way to manage fibromyalgia." Before proceeding with any treatment, patients should always check out the practitioner's credentials.
The following is a list of therapies that have been found to be effective for treating fibromyalgia.
Stress, say experts, is a contributing factor to the increased pain and muscle discomfort associated with fibromyalgia. But regular massage can help patients control their stress levels, which can reduce the intensity of their fibromyalgia symptoms.
Kathy Gruver, LMT, RM, NHC, doctor of traditional naturopathy in Santa Barbara, California, says that people with fibromyalgia can really benefit from regular massage therapy. However, she notes, "Because a person with fibromyalgia has a high level of pain, it typically prohibits [him or her] from receiving a deep tissue massage, the type that could potentially be most useful." But that doesn't mean patients with fibromyalgia should rule out massage altogether.
"Light, gentle massage work is very helpful in easing the muscular symptoms of fibromyalgia," says Gruver. A recent study from the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, found massage also helps to promote circulation and relaxation in the body, two things Gruver says can positively affect those with fibromyalgia. "I've seen a big connection between emotional stress and the symptoms of fibromyalgia. And, through massage, a person is able to alleviate stress and anxiety, [so his or her] fibromyalgia symptoms often decrease," she adds.
Gruver also points out that timing truly is everything when incorporating massage into patients' fibromyalgia treatment plan. "It's better to have two or three short sessions per week than one long, intense massage," she says. This will disperse the positive, relaxing effects throughout the week and provide the most comfort.
Although it may seem counterintuitive that patients can ease pain by being stuck with needles, mounting research has shown that the traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture can be an effective therapy for patients with fibromyalgia symptoms. Acupuncturist Eunice Kan, LAc, in Burlingame, California, explains that the hair-thin acupuncture needles are placed to stimulate a certain combination of acupoints on the body. "According to ancient beliefs, all of these points are connected through an energy force called qi," she says. "This means that the acupuncture treatment for pain in your back may involve placing needles in your foot or some other part of the body." Western scientists speculate that acupuncture helps because the needles cause changes in blood circulation and in neurotransmitters, which are chemicals found in the brain and spinal cord.
Contrary to what many might expect, acupuncture doesn't hurt. Even in cases where someone has an extreme aversion to needles, "there are options, such as acupressure and electrical stimulation," says Kan. The effect varies from person to person, but routine acupuncture treatments can bring relief from pain for a few days up to a few weeks. "It just depends on the patient," Kan says.
When patients' active, or conscious, mind is in a sleeplike state, their subconscious mind is able to accept and encourage them to act on suggestions for relaxation and healing. Clinical hypnotist Laurie Nadel, PhD, DCH, who works in Manhattan and Long Island, New York, says, "Conditions like fibromyalgia, which can be exacerbated by stress and anxiety, respond well to hypnosis."
Science appears to agree. Studies indicate that hypnosis can help patients ease their fibromyalgia symptoms, particularly when this therapy is used as part of a multidisciplinary approach to treating the disorder.
"It is impossible to predict how long the effects of a hypnosis session will last because everyone responds differently," Nadel says. However, she reports some patients with fibromyalgia find a 60-minute hypnosis session provides significant pain relief for six to eight hours and even up to 24 or 48 hours. Some patients are even able to learn self-hypnosis techniques that help reinforce the therapeutic benefits of their hypnotherapy between visits.
By measuring bodily functions, such as blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, sweat gland activity, and muscle tension, biofeedback raises patients' awareness of what their body is doing in real time. This, says Dr. Teitelbaum, increases patients' ability to consciously control their unconscious physiological activities: "By having access to physiological information you may be unaware of, biofeedback helps you gain control of your nervous system's automatic responses."
Dr. Teitelbaum says biofeedback can be useful for patients with fibromyalgia in a number of ways, depending on which of their body's functions or signals are being monitored: "Pulse rate tends to be elevated in fibromyalgia, because the control center for this function [called thehypothalamus, which controls the autonomic nervous system] is malfunctioning."
The most helpful form of biofeedback for patients with fibromyalgia is electromyography (EMG), which reads the patient's body for muscle spasms or shortening. Says Dr. Teitelbaum, "Much of the pain of fibromyalgia stems from muscle shortening, so this type of biofeedback can be very helpful for finding pain relief." Once patients see what a muscle spasm "looks" like on the biofeedback monitor, they can learn self-management techniques to reduce their symptoms, tracking their progress with the biofeedback machine.
Video: Fibromyalgia Treatment Research
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