Fibromyalgia: What it is and how to manage it

Fibromyalgia Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are two chronic conditions that are often times difficult to diagnose. People suffering from these conditions feel tired or exhausted, often with muscle weakness that makes it difficult to perform their daily tasks. Fibromyalgia can make someone feel as though they have the flu with varying levels of fatigue. The symptoms of these conditions can make it difficult to sleep, cause irritability and difficulty in concentrating.

Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue have some overlapping symptoms such as:

  • Musculoskeletal Pain
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Unrefreshed Sleep
  • Stiffness (particularly in the morning or after being in one position for a prolonged period of time)

It is judged that 3 to 5% ($10 Million) of the U.S. population suffers from severe chronic fatigue/Fibromyalgia states. Most of these people are women, about 90%.

A few of the current theories concerning the etiology of the conditions are:

  • Serotonin metabolism abnormalities
  • Enhanced pain perception
  • Fibromyalgia patients demonstrate four times the normal level of nerve growth factor
  • Peripheral mechanisms
  • Lower Levels of Somatomedin C

Pain symptoms include widespread body pain, neck, low back and posterior thorax pain, 15 or more painful tender points, also known as digital palpation points and headaches. These conditions can lead to abdominal discomfort, numbness and tingling, chest pain, cognitive disorders, environmental sensitivity (aversion to bright lights or sharp noises or constant/insistent noises) and depression and anxiety.

All of the symptoms can be aggravated by:

  • Cold or humid weather
  • Excessive physical activity
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Non-restorative sleep
  • Improper use of the body when lifting
  • Maintaining the same position for prolonged periods (i.e. Sleeping, sitting in a car for a long time, sitting at a desk for more than 30 to 60 minutes without a break
  • Allowing oneself to get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired
  • Holding the phone between your ear and shoulder
  • Moving the body into or through unstable or nonfunctional positions (poor body mechanics)

What can be done to help to control the symptoms?

  • Positive attitude/pleasant thoughts/humor
  • Regular, consistent, moderate exercise
  • Massage/topical lotions
  • Reiki
  • Alignment and body mechanics awareness
  • Acupuncture
  • Heat and cold treatments/electrical stimulation

Chronic Pain/Fatigue form a cycle that is difficult to break. When pain is apparent, it is natural to want to reduce activity; however, continued disuse of the body will lead to serious de-conditioning that will increase the pain.

One of the keys to breaking the pain cycle is consistent, appropriate exercise. It will take time and patience on the part of your instructor/trainer and you, the client, to begin to feel the results of exercise. There will be times, particularly in the beginning, when exercise will not feel good. It is important to work through fear of exercise and the resulting potential discomfort of exercise until strength and endurance are built.

Cardio respiratory exercises that are helpful emphasize smooth actions and use of the large muscles of the body. Exercises such as walking or water aerobics are examples. It is important to be moderate with these as well as other activities. It is preferable to increase time exercising versus increasing intensity. Use a target heart rate range of between 40 to 70%. Combining cardio respiratory exercise, strength training, stretching, balance and bio-mechanic exercises into your workout will help you to get stronger, have more endurance and break your pain cycle. There is no cure for Fibromyalgia syndrome and there is no simple strategy for dealing with the chronic and often debilitating effects. The condition is not life threatening and with the proper management tools people suffering from Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue can learn to manage their pain effectively.

Two books that are highly recommended for people with Fibromyalgia to read are: The Fibromyalgia Survivor, by Mark Pellegrino, M.D. and Your Personal Guide to Living Well with Fibromyalgia, published by the Arthritis Foundation. These books contain management information as well as worksheets that are helpful to assess which management strategies will be most beneficial.

In general your coping strategies can include: the use of principals of energy conservation to help with fatigue and pain. Take warm baths, showers or Jacuzzi to help with stiffness. Rest when you need it. Perform light/moderate exercise consistently. Take breaks between activities. Decrease the use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and non-prescriptive tranquilizers or sleep aids. Pace yourself, plan ahead and prioritize daily activities. Try to participate in social activities that you enjoy and that don’t increase stress. Know your own limits. Investigate relaxation techniques that help you to avoid stress and can decrease pain. A good night’s sleep will positively affect you. Be mindful of the sleep environment, temperature, noise, light, etc. Consider writing down your worries or making a “To Do List” for yourself for the next day so you can put these thoughts out of your mind. Above all, listen to your inner sense. It tells you when you need to rest…sit and read a good book or magazine, watch a movie, ask for a hug, spend time with a supportive friend, practice your relaxation technique, etc.

There are nutritional aspects that when modulated that can also help with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue. Common food offenders appear to be nuts, chocolate, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and yeast. It is recommended to keep a good balance of protein, fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Seek the advise of a licensed nutritionists for help in this matter.

When seeking professional help, try to find an instructor/trainer who has experience dealing with people who suffer from Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue. It is important that the person you work with understands the constraints and pacing you require.

Carol Witham: Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist. Carol is a personal trainer and a certified T’ai Chi instructor. She is also a Level III Essentrics Apprentice Instructor, as well as a Reiki Master with eight years of training experience and 16-years of T’ai Chi experience. She operates two personal training studios called Optimum Performance on the coast of Maine, where in addition to personal training, she offers group strength classes, classes for seniors, T’ai Chi & Chi Kung, and cycle classes.