Imagine waking up every morning feeling worn out, achy, and depressed. The fatigue never seems to go away, and anxiety is a constant companion because you just don’t understand what is wrong with you. You’re scared and confused. If it’s this bad now, what will tomorrow bring? This is the experience many people describe who now know that the mysterious symptoms they were suffering from have a name: Fibromyalgia. Once you can put a name to it and begin to understand it, there is hope of managing it and getting your life back. What are the facts about fibromyalgia? Let’s see what we can find out.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia literally means “pain of the tissues and muscles.” It is also known as fibrositis and fibromyositis. It is characterized by inflammation, fatigue and pain primarily in the connective tissues of the body, such as the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The pain is usually consistent, but it moves around the body. It is a relatively newly discovered disease, and estimates vary as to how prevalent it is. Some say that 3 to 6 million Americans have fibromyalgia, while others put it as high as 10 million. It is mostly found in adults, and is much more common in women than in men, especially women of child bearing age.
Fibromyalgia is considered to be in the family of rheumatoid diseases, a relative of arthritis. In 1990, the first standards of diagnosis were established for fibromyalgia by the American College of Rheumatology. To be definitively diagnosed, a subject must have widespread pain and tenderness in at least 11 of 18 identified tender points or trigger points, usually found in pairs. These points include the base of the neck, the spine, hips, pelvis, elbows, knees, and shoulders. For the diagnosis to hold true, the pain must be experienced for at least 90 consecutive days.
What Are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia has been described as an “energy crisis in the body.” It has a number of common symptoms:
- Widespread pain that moves around
- The “Wind Up”: snowballing pain that comes from repetitive, minor physical contact
- Significant fatigue
- Difficulty getting enough quality sleep
- Depression and anxiety
- Numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Poor memory
- Over-sensitivity to heat or cold
- Tension headaches
- Abdominal pain
- Painful menstrual cycles
- Difficulty swallowing
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Symptoms tend to worsen with increased physical or mental stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, and even changes in the weather for some folks
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
The exact cause is not known. There seems to be a connection between family history of the illness and risk, thus heredity is considered a factor. People who have another rheumatic disease such as arthritis are at increased risk as well. Low serotonin levels and low magnesium levels in the body are also a clue. Fibromyalgia patients often indicate both of these deficiencies.
One trend that interests researchers is that many patients seem to experience the onset of the disease after a physical or emotional trauma in their lives, such as an injury, or a traumatic event like an automobile accident or a physical assault. These kinds of stress are thought to trigger the onset of fibromyalgia in some cases. Other contributing factors may be some kinds of infections (such as a bad bout with the flu) or changes in brain chemistry.
The frequency of depression and anxiety in fibromyalgia patients has caused some health professionals and loved ones to suspect that the illness was primarily psychological and not a “real” condition. This has generally been dismissed in the last decade or so as more information has been gleaned about fibromyalgia. However, the ambiguity of this illness still haunts some of its own victims and causes them to doubt if it is not all “in my head.” Some patients report that their anxiety is exacerbated by their own guilt about not being able to do what they used to do. But as more hard evidence on fibromyalgia comes out, the legitimacy of the disease becomes more and more confirmed both in the eyes of its sufferers and of the general public.
What Treatments Are Available for Fibromyalgia?
There is no known cure for fibromyalgia. The goal of therapy is to manage and lessen the symptoms. The best course of action for most patients seems to be a combination of diet, exercise, and quality sleep.
A diet composed mainly of whole foods and organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables is best. These types of foods contain a high amount of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are needed for proper muscle health, which is critical for fibromyalgia patients.
Exercise is essential as well. Many patients have found swimming or water exercises to be especially helpful. Stretching is key, as well as proper warm up and cool down periods. Everyone is different, so try several different types of exercise and use what works best for you. Just remember to pace yourself and be consistent. Exercise should not be painful. If you are experiencing pain, try changing the type, intensity, or duration of your activity.
Getting adequate sleep is very important in the fight against fibromyalgia. Sleeplessness is a typical characteristic of the disease. Research seems to indicate that many patients suffer worse symptoms when they don’t get enough sleep. A pattern of poor sleep over time may even make the risk of developing fibromyalgia greater. Pharmaceutical sleep aids are available, but this is not the preferred route to take. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, especially in the evening or before bed. Consistent exercise is known to help stabilize sleep patterns as well. Some folks find it beneficial to go to bed and get up at approximately the same time every day. Also, try to make your bedroom as sleep-friendly as possible. Dark, quiet, and comfortable are the buzz words here. Bedrooms should be bedrooms, not offices, conference rooms, or entertainment centers.
Are There Any Herbal or Natural Treatments Available?
There is very little available in the way of mainstream medical treatments available for fibromyalgia. This is a good thing in this case, as it has motivated both patients and health providers to look for natural alternatives. A recent study from Mayo Clinic stated that approximately 98% of fibromyalgia patients polled used some form of alternative or complimentary therapy to ease their symptoms.
- Boosting serotonin levels seems to be beneficial to most patients. 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a supplement that when ingested converts into serotonin in the body. One study indicated that most patients experienced significant improvement in pain, sleeplessness, anxiety, and fatigue after taking 100 mg. three times per day for 30 days. Results were even better after 90 days.
- Magnesium is another big player in supplemental remedies. Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is particularly critical to proper production and metabolism of energy (ATP) and muscle functions. Most fibromyalgia patients are deficient in magnesium. This creates fatigue and a lack of energy, as well as muscle pain.
- Malic Acid is a substance found in many fruits, with especially high levels in apples. It is involved in the production of energy in the body. When malic acid levels are low, the body turns to less efficient ways of making energy, and this causes lactic acid to accumulate. Lactic acid causes muscle pain and fatigue. Supplementation with a combination of magnesium and malic acid is especially effective.
- Coenzyme Q10 and Ginkgo Biloba combined shows great promise. One study found that 64% of subjects experienced significant relief from symptoms after taking these supplements together.
- Acylcarnitine is a substance that is important to energy production as well. Many fibromyalgia patients are deficient in this. Supplementation of 500-1000 mg. daily for 12 weeks has proven useful.
- Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) is helpful too. Fish oil, flaxseed oil, and primrose oil are great sources for EFA’s. These fatty acids aid in producing series 1 and 3 prostaglandins which help reduce inflammation. Stay away from animal fats in the diet, as these spawn series 2 prostaglandins, which increase inflammation.
- Ginger acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and helps with muscle and joint pain. Researchers have also discovered that ginger may stymie the growth of “Substance P,” which is a pain mediator found at elevated levels in many patients.
- St. Johns Wort helps many patients with both depression and sleeplessness. It also works well in conjunction with 5-HTP and magnesium.
Massage is a therapy that is helpful in many cases. Some patients love it, but others complain that it is painful for them at times. Everyone is different, and as is the nature of fibromyalgia, patient’s levels and locations of pain vary. A massage therapist must be sensitive to this when operating on a subject. Short sessions are usually best. Some patients have taught family members what works best for them. A form called “deep muscle massage” is preferred by some. It’s wonderful to have a masseuse right on the premises! (That would be nice for all of us, fibro or not). Heat therapy, cold therapy, and hydrotherapy (warm baths) are often used either standing alone or in combination with massage.
Aromatherapy is also used by some patients. A soak in a hot tub with lavender, juniper, or chamomile can be soothing to both the body and the spirit.
Since magnesium is so important to the fibromyalgia patient, I would like to talk a bit more about this mineral and how to get more of it in our diets. In review, magnesium makes such a difference in the lives of fibro patients because it is so critical in metabolism of energy and in proper muscle function. It can be found in high concentrations in many foods, including beans, nuts, grains, fish, meat, and dark green vegetables such as avocados, broccoli, and spinach. Deficiency can also lead to irregular heart beat, nerve disorders, and circulation problems. Magnesium also works with calcium, and enables it to be absorbed properly into the body. Vitamin B6 should also be taken along with any magnesium supplements, as B6 works to allow greater absorption of magnesium into the cells.