Exercise Can Ease Fibromyalgia

Benefits May Last Up to a Year

From the WebMD Archives

July 25, 2002 -- Take two laps and call me in the morning. That's the message of a new study that shows people with fibromyalgia can reduce their own pain and discomfort by following a regular exercise routine.

Fibromyalgia is a common and debilitating condition that affects about 1% of the population, mostly women. The medical cause of the severe muscle and joint pain associated with the condition is unknown. And many sufferers are unable to improve with current treatments such as pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, and antidepressants.

But a new study in the July 27 issue of the British Medical Journal found that regular aerobic exercise can produce substantial improvements in how fibromyalgia patients feel.

Although previous studies have also found benefits from exercise for fibromyalgia patients, researchers say those findings are hard to apply to general practice because the exercise sessions were conducted in hospitals under the supervision of trained health professionals. Those studies also lacked long-term follow up.

But in this study, the authors compared the effects of a simple-to-follow, community-based exercise program on a group of 132 people with fibromyalgia who were attending a rheumatology clinic in London.

The patients were randomly divided into two groups that met in hour-long classes twice a week for 12 weeks. One group received exercise therapy from a personal trainer with no special training in working with fibromyalgia patients. And the other group received relaxation and muscle flexibility training.

After three months of following a individualized exercise program, which consisted primarily of walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bicycle, researchers found 35% of the patients said they felt much or very much better. In comparison, only about half as many patients in the relaxation group reported similar improvements.

And those beneficial effects were long lasting. One year later, fewer patients in the fibromyalgia exercise group still met the clinical criteria for having the condition (31 in the exercise group compared with 44 in the in the relaxation group). People in the exercise group also had bigger reductions in muscle and joint tenderness and said fibromyalgia was having less of a negative impact on their daily life.

Study author Selwyn C. M. Richards of Poole Hospital in Dorset, England, and colleagues say their findings show that "prescribed aerobic activity is a simple, cheap, and potentially widely available treatment for fibromyalgia."