Natural therapies bring relief from fibromyalgia
Muscle aches targeting your tenderest spots… fatigue so severe that you can scarcely stand up… sleep disturbances that keep you from ever feeling rested. If these symptoms sound familiar, the problem may be fibromyalgia.
Some doctors claim that fibromyalgia is “all in the head.” Yet this potentially debilitating condition is very real to the estimated five million Americans who have it — with women outnumbering men nine-to-one. As yet, it has no known cause or cure. Conventional medical care often fails to bring relief — but many alternative therapies may ease fibromyalgia symptoms. What you need to know to feel better…
FIGURING IT OUT
No lab test can detect fibromyalgia, and patients’ blood work often appears normal. Diagnosis is based on symptoms — widespread pain that persists for at least three months plus abnormal tenderness at 11 or more of 18 specific spots on the neck, shoulders, chest, back, hips, thighs, knees and elbows. Many patients also experience headache… stiff joints… constipation or diarrhea… depression… sleep problems… and/or sensitivity to lights, sounds or smells.
Theories as to the cause of fibromyalgia include an excess of, or oversensitivity to, the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that signal pain… or changes in muscle metabolism and/or hormones that affect nerve activity.
Anti-inflammatory drugs, painkillers and antidepressants are only moderately effective for fibromyalgia symptoms. What’s more, because fibromyalgia patients often are very sensitive to medication, they’re more likely than other people to experience side effects.
Bottom line: If drugs help you and do not cause side effects, consider complementing your medication with the therapies below. If medication is not effective or appropriate, alternative therapies offer the best chance for relief.
The supplements below are listed in the order in which I believe they are likely to be effective for fibromyalgia. All are available at health-food stores and on-line. Try the first one for six to eight weeks. If it helps, continue indefinitely. If it doesn’t help, discontinue use. For greater relief, try the others one at a time for six to eight weeks, continuing with any or all that work for you. They generally are safe and, unless otherwise noted, can be taken indefinitely — but get your doctor’s approval before using them. As a general precaution, do not use while pregnant or breast-feeding.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), may ease pain by reducing inflammation. Source: Fish oil liquid or capsules. Dosage: 3 grams (g) daily of combined EPA and DHA.
- S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), a naturally occurring compound in the body, may reduce fatigue and depression by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Dosage: 800 mg to 1,200 mg daily. Do not use SAM-e if you take antidepressants or have diabetes.
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and ginkgo biloba, taken together, may have a synergistic effect. CoQ10, a vitamin-like substance, boosts cellular energy. Ginkgo biloba, an herb, improves blood flow. Dosage: 200 milligrams (mg) daily of each.
- Chlorella, a type of green algae, reduced fibromyalgia pain by 22% in one study. Possible reasons: It may boost the immune system and/or increase absorption of essential nutrients. Dosage: 5 g to 10 g daily.
- Nicotinamide adenine dehydrogenase (NADH), a vitamin-like substance, may increase energy within cells and facilitate production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which affects mood. Dosage: 10 mg daily.
- Melatonin, a hormone that regulates the “body clock,” can improve sleep. Dosage: 3 mg daily. Melatonin can affect other hormones, so using it for more than one month requires close medical supervision.
- Probiotics, beneficial intestinal bacteria, combat harmful bacteria that cause digestive distress… and may influence inflammatory chemicals that trigger pain and depression. Dosage: One billion colony forming units (CFU) of lactobacillus and/or bifidobacterium daily.
MORE ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES
Ask your doctor about…
- Acupuncture. This involves inserting thin needles into points along the body’s meridians (energy pathways) to enhance flow of qi (life force). This may release endorphins that relieve pain. Referrals: American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, 866-455-7999, www.aaaomonline.org.
- Aromatherapy. This lifts mood, making pain less bothersome. To use: Place two or three drops of jasmine or lavender essential oil in an aromatherapy diffuser.
- Mind-body techniques. These reduce stress. Try: Meditation, deep breathing, biofeedback. For DVDs and CDs on techniques, contact the Benson-Henry Institute for MindBody Medicine (617-643-6090, www.mbmi.org).
- Mud packs. In one study, mud packs were heated to between 104°F and 113°F and applied to patients’ sore areas for 15 minutes during 12 separate sessions. Pain, fatigue and physical function all improved. Theory: Mud draws heat to muscles, reducing pain and stiffness. Best: Ask a holistic doctor for a referral to a medical spa.
- Myofascial trigger-point therapy. This focuses on tender muscle areas that are anatomically similar to acupuncture points. Practitioners inject these “trigger points” with an anesthetic, then stretch muscles to relieve pain. Referrals: National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists, www.myofascialtherapy.org.
- Pool therapy. Exercises done in a heated swimming pool for one hour three times weekly for several months can reduce fibromyalgia pain and increase stamina. Referrals: Ask a physical therapist.
For a referral to a doctor who specializes in fibromyalgia, contact the National Fibromyalgia Association (714-921-0150, www.fmaware.org).