29,300,000…the number of results that pop up on Google if you search the ‘F’ word…
Heard of Lady Gaga? (most probably)
Heard of Fibromyalgia (possibly)
Why do I mention this?
Well for those of you that follow the American singer and song writer, you may know that she suffers from a condition called Fibromyalgia aka Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS). It is a condition that is hard to diagnose, explain or treat. And many people that suffer with it say they struggle to get medical professionals to take their symptoms seriously.
Unfortunately, Lady Gaga is not the only one. In fact research estimates that nearly 1 in 20 people may be affected by fibromyalgia to some degree. (1)
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is an idiopathic (not known cause) chronic condition that causes widespread musculoskeletal pain, hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain) and allodynia (pain from something which normally shouldn’t be painful, e.g. light touch). (2)
What are some common symptoms?
The condition is characterised by widespread body pain and extreme fatigue. It is however important to note that each sufferer of fibromyalgia experiences the condition differently.
- Widespread pain. The pain associated with fibromyalgia often is described as a constant dull ache that has lasted for at least three months. To be considered widespread, the pain must occur on both sides of your body and above and below your waist (some doctors refer to 18 different body landmarks).
- Fatigue. People with fibromyalgia often awaken tired, even though they report sleeping for long periods of time. Sleep is often disrupted by pain, and many patients with fibromyalgia have other sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.
- Cognitive difficulties. A symptom commonly referred to as “fibro fog” impairs the ability to focus, pay attention and concentrate on mental tasks. (3)
Fibromyalgia often co-exists with other painful conditions, such as: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraines and other types of headaches, interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome, and temporomandibular joint disorders.
What causes Fibromyalgia?
Doctors don’t know the exact cause of fibromyalgia, but it is believed that it involves a variety of factors working together. These may include:
Physical or emotional trauma: Fibromyalgia can sometimes be triggered by a physical trauma, such as a car accident. Psychological stress may also trigger the condition.
Chemical imbalances: Research has found that people with fibromyalgia have abnormally low levels of the hormones serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine in their brains.
Abnormal pain messages: One of the main theories is that people with fibromyalgia have developed changes in the way the central nervous system processes the pain messages carried around the body. This could be due to changes to chemicals in the nervous system. The central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) transmits information all over your body through a network of specialised cells. Changes in the way this system works may explain why fibromyalgia results in constant feelings of, and extreme sensitivity to, pain.
Genetics: Because fibromyalgia tends to run in families, there may be certain genetic mutations that may make you more susceptible to developing the disorder.
Infections: Some illnesses appear to trigger or aggravate symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Sleep problems: It’s possible that disturbed sleep patterns may be a cause of fibromyalgia, rather than just a symptom. Fibromyalgia can prevent you from sleeping deeply and cause fatigue (extreme tiredness). People with the condition who sleep badly can also have higher levels of pain, suggesting that these sleep problems contribute to the other symptoms of fibromyalgia.
What can be done to help you?
Firstly, it is important to understand that Fibromyalgia has numerous symptoms which means that no single treatment will work for all of them. Treatments that work for some people won’t necessarily work for others. But do not let this discourage you.
Personally, I find many of my patients have been told in the past that there is no specific “cure or fix” when it comes to fibromyalgia. As a result some patients just end up not doing anything at all and “live with their label” that the doctor gave them.
There are however a number of things that can be tried to see what works best for each individual. The emphasis is on minimising symptoms and improving general health. It is common for medication to be the first port of call for many, so it is always advised to consult with your doctor first. Occasionally there may be other conditions that are causing your symptoms, therefore looking for the underlying cause first, is always advisable. Here we shall cover ways of tackling symptoms of fibromyalgia by means other than medication.
- Be more informed
You may find it helpful just simply getting a better understanding about fibromyalgia. Just talking to someone who knows what you’re going though can make you feel better. Many people also find support groups helpful also. You can visit UK Fibromyalgia’s support group section for a list of fibromyalgia support groups across the country.
Fibromyalgia Action UK is a charity that offers information and support to anyone who has fibromyalgia. (4)
The best way to cope with fibromyalgia is to use a number of techniques that ease the symptoms as much as possible. Relaxation is one technique that works really well for almost everybody with fibromyalgia. It reduces tension in the mind and body right away. The results are calming for all the symptoms, especially for the pain. Relaxation can be learned from books, videos, smartphone Apps ( I personally use, 1GiantMind). You can also try Season 3, Ep. 3 with Sherezade Ruano, where she talks about meditation and mindfulness, and our article on yoga.
Exercise (or just being active and getting move movement in your joints) is the most common prescription for fibromyalgia, and some argue the most beneficial, too. It is important to have in mind that you are likely to have good and bad days, and therefore staying positive is key. When it comes to exercises, aim for progression and not perfection. Yoga, for example, is a great way to exercise the body in a gentle way. It involves stretching which can improve circulation and decrease inflammation, and allow better range of motion in your stiff joints. Other patients benefit from swimming and other gentle forms of exercise, including walking, gentle jog in the park, pilates and Tai Chi. (5)
People with fibromyalgia often have low levels of melatonin, which the pineal gland releases so you are ready for sleep. Sleep is extremely important for everybody and for fibromyalgia patients in particular. Patients that suffer with the condition have reported reduction in muscle pain from having good quality deep sleep. This is is how your body recuperates and muscles repair themselves. A study in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology found that taking melatonin helped reduce fibromyalgia pain and improve sleep in some people. Melatonin tablets vary in strength, so consult with your doctor for the correct dosage for your needs. Understand how you can improve your sleep will tremendously improve your changes of feeling more energised and less fatigued each day, regardless if you have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia or not. In Season 3, Ep. 2 we talk about some of the ways you can improve your sleep.
5. Vitamin D
Virtually everybody, not just my fibromyalgia patients, is advised to have their healthy dose of vitamin D. Vitamin D can help with muscle pain, and although it is not a miracle cure, some studies have shown that it is an effective fibromyalgia treatment. Always aim for natural ways of getting your dose of Vit D, and the only way to do that is sun expose ( approx 20 mins daily). If you are someone who lives in the U.K. and exposure to sun in not great in the winter months (or the rest of the year), you can consult with your doctor regarding Vit D supplements.
This is a tricky one. Although we find that there will always be more research needed in the field of nutrition and diet when it comes to fibromyalgia patients, it is important to note that eating a well balanced diet can only benefit you, regardless if you suffer from symptoms or not.
There are no nutritional requirements that are the same for two different people suffering the condition. It is therefore extremely important to get advice from a professionally trained nutritionist. A treatment programme including weight loss strategies, nutritional education, specific dietary interventions and the use of targeted nutritional supplements is recommended for patients suffering from fibromyalgia.
Here are some general nutritional guidelines that anyone can benefit from:
Eat a balanced diet:
- That diet should include fresh fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fats
- Lean protein, such as fish
- Reduce dairy
- Avoid anything processed or fried
- Avoid refined sugar.
When I interviewed Fiona Campbell, a nutritionist practising in Bristol, UK she said: “choose fresh, seasonal whole foods…and have a good relationship with your food”, which is one of my favourite all time sayings. Check out the episode with Fiona.
7. Manual Therapies
Since I am a chiropractor, and this is my area of expertise I can speak from experience on this one. Manual therapies such as chiropractic, physiotherapy, massage (and others) can significantly improve patients’ aches and pain. This can be done by reducing the amount of stress people experience in their muscles and joints on daily basis. Improving how your spinal joints, nerves, muscles and other joints in the body function can help you (and help the effectiveness of other therapies) to utilise your body in a better way.
I hope this has been of help to some people, and if so, please share with someone who may benefit!
“Our lifestyle choices today can change the world tomorrow, so why not change it for better?”
Dr Stefan Gospodinov DC (MChiro)