If you can’t explain why every muscle in your body seems to hurt lately, you may have fibromyalgia, an elusive disorder that affects millions of people.
This condition is most common among women between the ages of 20 and 50, although it can strike anyone at any age.
What is it?
Defined as a rheumatic disorder, fibromyalgia is characterised by widespread muscle pain and fatigue.
In the morning, a person with this condition frequently feels unrefreshed and experiences aching or stabbing muscle pain (which often improves as the day progresses). Symptoms may be constant, or may disappear for months at a time and then recur.
Fibromyalgia can be hard to diagnose. Blood tests often come in within normal limits. X-rays are often read as normal, even though there can be significant increased wear within certain parts of the spine that should be attended to.
To distinguish this disorder from others that cause similar symptoms, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or depression, doctors often apply pressure to specific areas of the body (called tender points); the pressure causes enough pain to make the person flinch or cry out.
The diagnosis of fibromyalgia is made when fatigue and muscle pain persist for three months and can’t be linked to another cause, and when extreme sensitivity is found at 11 or 18 tender points, at the base of the skull and in the neck, shoulders, ribs, upper chest (near the collarbone), elbows, knees, lower back and buttocks.
What causes it?
The cause of fibromyalgia is not known. Once thought to be a psychological disorder, the condition is now ascribed by some to low levels of serotonin, one of the chemicals that transmit messages throughout the brain and nervous system. Lack of serotonin may produce the muscle pain directly, or, more likely, interfere with sleep, thus aggravating the pain.
Others suggest that people with fibromyalgia have extremely high levels of substance P, which is believed to transmit pain messages from the body to the brain.
Therefore, those with the condition may simply be abnormally sensitive to pain-producing stimuli. In addition, a particularly severe case of flu, a physical injury such as whiplash, a weak immune system or some long-standing psychological stress have all been associated with the disease.
Fibromyalgia also seems to be closely linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, and the two may occur together.
In clinical practice we often find that patients who present with fibromyalgia have underlying disc injuries within their cervical (neck) and/or lumbosacral spine (lower back).
I have personally seen many patients who present, or have been ‘diagnosed’ with fibromyalgia, to find on further examination and MRI that they have a number of disc injuries within their spine.
I believe the impact of disc injuries within the spine are generally under rated within our current medical system. Virtually all disc injury patients who have been in pain for a while, are told they may have fibromyalgia.
Indeed the disc injuries may well drive much of the ‘fibromyalgia’ symptoms. So for full resolution, you may need to address the underlying disc injury as well. Practitioners who use modalities such as Acupuncture (to improve serotonin levels) and functional rehabilitation programs are usually better suited to deal with disc injuries.
What are the symptoms?
- Chronic muscle pain and stiffness (at it’s worst in the morning) for three consecutive months.
- Sensitivity in 11 of 18 specific body sites, called tender points.
- Poor quality of sleep.
- Fatigue (chronic or occasional), even after adequate sleep.
- Depression, often with anxiety.
- Impaired memory, concentration and muscle coordination.
Are there any natural therapies?
Everyone with fibromyalgia should take magnesium and malic acid. These are important for energy and for muscle relaxation. Many people with this condition are deficient in magnesium; the malic acid enhances its absorption as well as its fatigue-fighting effect.
Consider adding the herb St John’s wort, which raises serotonin levels, eases depression and improves pain tolerance. (Be careful with the use St John’s Wort with prescription antidepressants.
St John’s Wort may negate the need for the use of antidepressants. Alternatively, St John’s Wort may alter the way your antidepressants work.) For more information about St John’s Wort and recommended products click here.
If you feel you need more support, add coenzyme Q10. It helps relieve the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, which may accompany fibromyalgia.
If you are feeling fatigued and have low energy, consider the use of a high quality multimineral and multivitamin. For Emed’s best multi’s click here.
If you’re having difficulty sleeping, magnolia, melatonin or the herbs valerian or St John’s wort.
- Eat several small meals during the day to provide a steady supply of protein and carbohydrate for proper muscle function. For more information about optimum nutrition click here.
- Increase your water intake. Even slight dehydration with cause increased pain, muscular tightness and cramping. For the correct amount of water to drink click here.
- Use heat patches or heat packs to promote blood flow and reduce pains. For a food cost effective heat patch click here.
- Take hot baths or showers – especially in the morning – to soothe soreness, increase circulation and relieve stiffness.
- Find a health professional who is familiar with fibromyalgia. A technique called trigger point therapy can be extremely helpful in reducing pain.
- Consider Acupuncture as a means of managing your pains, raising serotonin levels and reducing muscle spasm.
- Cut back on caffeine, alcohol and sugar, which often cause fatigue.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep a night.
Did you know?
Meditation, movement therapy and knowledge of the connections between mind and body helped 20 fibromyalgia patients in one study.
After eight weeks, standardised tests showed improvements in the sleep and fatigue patterns, pain levels and moods of the study’s participants.