Fibromyalgia is so difficult to diagnose that it can take years before
patients understand what’s making their bodies ache. When Lynn Matallana began
noticing unexplained pain and fatigue in 1993 -- “pain in every part of my
body, pain that felt like acid in my veins” -- it took her nearly two years and
37 doctors before she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. In that time, the former
partner in an advertising and public relations firm says, “I went from being an
extremely active, high-functioning, happy individual to being confined to bed
in physical and emotional agony.”
Once an avid skier, dancer, and yoga practitioner, Matallana, 53, of Orange,
Calif., had days where she couldn’t get out of bed. “It was literally a process
to think of turning over and swinging my legs out,” she says. “It was difficult
to even go to the bathroom.” She eventually had to retire from her advertising
Usually it's easy to find out what's making kids sick. Common childhood conditions like strep throat and ear infections are pretty simple to diagnose with a throat swab or doctor's exam.
Yet when kids complain of vague symptoms, like fatigue, achiness, and difficulty sleeping, they could be experiencing any one of a number of common illnesses. One condition that's easy to overlook in children and teens is fibromyalgia, which causes pain in the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints.
The National Fibromyalgia Association estimates that between 3% and 6% of
the population -- mostly women -- has fibromyalgia, an unexplained condition
characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. For many years, fibromyalgia was
little recognized or understood, but now the American College of Rheumatology
provides doctors diagnostic criteria, and in 2007, the FDA approved the first
drug to treat fibromyalgia.
Recent research shows that exercise can help. A 2007 study in the Archives
of Internal Medicine found that women with fibromyalgia in a four-month
exercise program reported significant improvements in physical function,
fatigue, and depression.
Light aerobic exercise seems to be best, says Roland Staud, MD, director of
the Center for Musculoskeletal Pain Research at the University of Florida.
“Moving about in a warm pool -- swimming, walking, floating, or stretching --
is very helpful. It takes about a week to two weeks to see improvement, and
then people notice they can do more things without becoming fatigued or in
pain, and they sleep better and feel better.”
Why exercise helps fibromyalgia
It’s a conundrum -- the thing that’s hardest to do when you have
fibromyalgia is one of the best things for it. Why? That’s not well understood,
says Staud. “Moderate exercise is clearly beneficial for fibromyalgia, but we
don’t know exactly how.”
For Matallana, yoga helped get her out of bed. “I had a yoga instructor come
to my home three times a week. At first I was so debilitated that I just lay on
the floor and visualized moving again.” Over months she moved to stretching,
walking, and water exercise. Three years ago, she tandem-biked 310 miles of a
fund-raising bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Today, exercise gives Matallana – who has gone on to become the founder and
president of the National Fibromyalgia Association -- the energy to be active
and cope with her condition. “If I miss a few days, I start feeling the pain
more,” she says. “Be consistent and continue when you have bad days, and you’ll
have fewer bad days.”