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Exercise Can Ease Fibromyalgia Pain

Low-impact exercise reduces pain and fatigue – and increases your ability to function.
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WebMD the Magazine - Feature

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 career.

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Treating fibromyalgia with exercise

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.”

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