Navigating Fibromyalgia: 3 Best Ways to Manage the Pain

While fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) can be difficult to describe — and diagnose — those who suffer the aches and pains of this condition know it all too well. Tender points all over their body, joint aches, poor sleep, fatigue, depression and stiffness distinguish this musculoskeletal disorder. The pain seems to stem from the tightening and thickening of the connective tissue, or myofascia, that holds the muscles together. The muscles, according to Jeffrey Thompson, medical director of Mayo Clinic’s Fibromyalgia Treatment Program, “hold tighter than they need to and start fighting each other.”

All that muscle clenching takes its toll. Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., a specialist in FMS, describes it as “an energy crisis in the body.” But just like the current energy crisis, with a shortage of fossil fuels causing us to reexamine our driving habits, this kind of “crisis” can be a catalyst for making important lifestyle changes.

In fact, says Thompson, fibromyalgia is a condition that “you can manage and that you can live well with.” Gaiam worked with Mayo Clinic’s Center for Integrative and Complementary Medicine to create the DVD Mayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for Fibromyalgia. Although the conventional medical solution for the condition is painkillers, which often give unsatisfying results, many different alternative approaches have had proven success. And although each case requires an individualized approach, three of the basic tenets of coping with fibromyalgia include exercise, improved sleep and stress reduction.

Exercise

Mayo Clinic’s Amit Sood, M.D., sums up concisely the environmental triggers that can cause FMS: “an overactive mind and an underactive body.” One of the best ways to bring these two factors into balance is through exercise, which acts as a natural painkiller. Any kind of exercise works, from running, jogging or walking to yoga or Pilates. The golden rule for exercise intensity? Mayo Clinic stresses the importance of starting low and going slow, and stopping whenever you feel tired or in pain.

But any exercise plan, no matter how gentle, may feel like the catch-22 of FMS. Christine Reed, who has fibromyalgia, encourages fighting through the resistance. “Fibro causes pain, and this pain can easily lead to lethargy and lessened activity,” she says. “And yet, for me, the most important thing to do to feel better is to work out.”

In the beginning, it can help to split the exercise throughout the day, and do five minutes each time. Gradually you can build up your tolerance and increase both the duration and intensity of your workout. Being consistent — and persistent — is the key. “My joints ache so badly that it would be easy to say, ‘Oh, I better be careful,’ and then baby myself,” says Reed. “But this babying can too easily lead to a sedentary and depressed life. I wish I could just yell to every FMS person out there: ‘Get up and move!’”

Sleep

“Getting sufficient sleep is essential,” says Thompson. Most people who suffer from FMS awaken multiple times throughout the night. Make sure you set at least eight hours aside for sleep and develop a routine that works. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and if necessary, limit daytime napping. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can all interrupt your sleep, so it may be prudent to do without. A 2007 study published in The Journal of Psychosomatic Research showed that sleep quality was significantly predictive of fatigue and pain in patients with FMS. The less sleep, the more pain: You may find yourself in the grip of a self-perpetuating cycle. Break out of it by learning some deep relaxation techniques, which can help you with the way you handle pain.

Stress reduction, meditation and spiritual growth

The mind-body-spirit continuum can offer substantial solace, ease and relief from chronic pain. “The body responds to the positive input of the mind and spirit,” says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic. Cultivating mindfulness, a technique based on purposefully paying attention, gives people a way to modulate their response to pain.

Brian Berman, M.D., founder and director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, has used mindfulness-based relaxation techniques such as meditation with good results. “These techniques allow people to take a step back from their situation,” he says. “People sleep better and can better control their reaction to pain. It gives people a way to help themselves — not just wait for a magic pill.”

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