Fibromyalgia and Alternative Treatments

From acupuncture to chiropractic, from massage to meditation, alternative treatments are in great demand. That's especially true for people with pain-related illnesses such as fibromyalgia. Alternative medicine, including herbal therapy and homeopathy, is used in place of conventional medicine. These systems are based on the belief that the body has the power to heal itself with multiple techniques, including those that involve the mind, body, and spirit. Complementary medicine can be used in combination with conventional medicine.

Before you try alternative or complementary treatments, talk with your doctor. Check to see what limitations might apply to you. Working with your doctor, you can find an acceptable way to blend conventional medicine with alternative treatments or natural remedies. When you do, you may be able to increase restful sleep and reduce your fibromyalgia pain.

Can acupuncture treat fibromyalgia?

With acupuncture, a practitioner inserts one or more dry needles into the skin and underlying tissues at specific points. Gently twisting or otherwise manipulating the needles causes a measurable release of endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are the body's natural opioids. In addition, according to acupuncture practitioners, energy blocks are removed. Removing them is said to restore the flow of energy along the meridians, which are specific energy channels.

Studies show that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry. It appears to do this by changing the release of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters stimulate or inhibit nerve impulses in the brain that relay information about external stimuli and sensations such as pain. In this way, the patient's pain tolerance is increased. One acupuncture treatment in some patients may last weeks to help alleviate chronic pain. A recent small study showed decrease pain and increased quality of life for fibromyalgia patients who had acupuncture therapy. More research is needed to see how effective this therapy is for treating fibromyalgia.

How can chiropractic care help fibromyalgia?

Chiropractic care is a very common alternative or complementary treatment for fibromyalgia pain. People use it to treat pain of pressure points, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and pain from musculoskeletal injuries. Chiropractic treatment may be effective for fibromyalgia because it may reduce pain levels and increase cervical and lumbar ranges of motion.

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Chiropractic treatment is based on the principle that the body is a self-healing organism. To reduce pain and increase healing, the doctor of chiropractic uses spinal adjustments. The goal is to restore normal transmission of nervous impulses by  increasing the mobility between spinal vertebrae, which may have become restricted, locked, or slightly out of proper position.

Chiropractors do this by using hand adjustments. With gentle pressure or stretching, multiple gentle movements of one area, or specific high-velocity thrusts, the adjustments are said to help return the bones to a more normal position or motion. This return is said to relieve pain and reduce ill health.

Can massage ease fibromyalgia pain?

With Swedish massage, the practitioner uses a system of long strokes, kneading, and friction techniques. With these, the practitioner massages the more superficial layers of the muscles. The massage is combined with active and passive movements of the joints.

Oil is usually used to facilitate the stroking and kneading of the body, thereby stimulating circulation. The massage therapist applies pressure and rubs the muscles in the same direction as the flow of blood returning to the heart.

In deep-tissue massage therapists use greater pressure than is used in Swedish massage. In so doing, they target the deep layers of muscle. Using a series of slow strokes and direct pressure, the therapist will strive to release chronic patterns of muscular tension. Sometimes, the therapists use their elbows or thumbs to push hard into the deepest grain of the muscle to reduce tension.

Neuromuscular massage combines the basic principles of ancient Eastern treatments, such as acupressure and shiatsu, with specific hands-on, deep-tissue treatment. The goal is to reduce chronic muscle or myofascial (soft-tissue) pain.

Massage is one of the complementary therapies that is most highly rated by people with fibromyalgia. Limited research has shown that massage can help reduce pain, elevate mood, decrease the need for pain medicines, and increase the quality of life for some fibromyalgia patients.

How does biofeedback work to ease fibromyalgia?

To individualize the reduction of stress in the treatment of fibromyalgia, biofeedback is often recommended. This mind/body relaxation technique uses electronics to measure stress-related responses in the body. The idea behind biofeedback is that people can use information about their body's internal processes to learn to control those processes.

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With biofeedback, you are connected to a machine that informs you and your therapist when you are physically relaxing your body. Sensors detect muscle tension, heart rate, breathing pattern, the amount of sweat produced, or body temperature. Any one or all of these can let the trained biofeedback therapist know if you are learning to relax.

The instruments magnify signals that you might not otherwise notice. As a result, you can use this visual or auditory response to learn how to control certain bodily functions. The ultimate goal of biofeedback is to use this skill outside the therapist's office when you are facing real stressors.

With fibromyalgia pain, you know the "real stressor" is the pain itself. Nevertheless, other daily stressors can cause your fibromyalgia to flare. What you want to do is respond in a healthy way to the chronic stressors. If learned properly, electronic biofeedback can help you control your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing patterns, and muscle tension, potentially reducing pain. In several recent studies, biofeedback has been shown to help decrease tender point sensitivity and to improve functioning of patients with fibromyalgia.

Can herbal medicine help fibromyalgia?

Herbal remedies have been used for generations. They can be put in tea or soup or taken in other forms. While some herbal therapies have not been shown to have a specific benefit for fibromyalgia symptoms, some patients have found improved sleep or more energy with herbal supplements. Studies to prove safety and effectiveness in treating fibromyalgia have been mixed.

How can meditation help fibromyalgia?

With meditation, you allow your thoughts to take a break from daily analytical routines and give support to the spiritual dimension of life. When you meditate, your body switches from the pumping "fight or flight" response to a calmer, more peaceful mood. Studies show that meditation produces brain waves consistent with serenity and happiness. Meditation provides nourishment for your soul, satiates inner spiritual hunger, and helps you to develop your ability to pay attention to all areas of life without distraction.

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What should I remember if I want to try an alternative treatment?

It's important to be openly discriminating when choosing alternative treatments. The fact that something is called "natural" does not mean it is safe. Working with your doctor, look for the alternative or complementary treatments that will best boost sleep and decrease pain. The right treatment can help get you on the healthy road again.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 10, 2016

Sources

SOURCES: National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders (NIAMS): "Fibromyalgia." McIlwain, H. and Bruce, D. The Fibromyalgia Handbook, Holt, 2007.

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