What is Fibromyalgia?
Even though up to 3% of the world’s population experiences fibromyalgia, effective treatment can be maddeningly hard to find. If you’re familiar with the fibromyalgia and the basics of treatment, you may want to go straight to reading about
Fibromyalgia (FM) is different for everyone, but common symptoms can include chronic widespread pain, fatigue, sleep alterations, autonomic disturbances, cognitive dysfunction, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, somatic symptoms, and occasionally even psychiatric disorders. Because there is a wide range of possible symptoms and a vexing lack of biomarkers, patients may see a variety of specialists and be handed conflicting opinions before being given a fibromyalgia diagnosis. When that long, frustrating journey ends, another begins: that of finding effective relief.
Because the root cause of fibromyalgia remains unknown, treatment consists of individualized and symptom-based plans that draw on a combination of medications and self-care strategies.
Common medications include over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol and Alieve, antidepressants like Cymbalta and Savella which can help with pain and fatigue, and anti-seizure drugs like Neurontin which can help with certain specific types of pain.
Typical self-care techniques include talk therapy (CBT) which can help with pain and stress management. They may also include physical and occupational therapies focused on reducing physical stress and pain in the body.
For many, these options leave much to be desired. In fact, a review of more than 224 clinical trials published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “the effectiveness of most therapies for fibromyalgia was not supported.” According to this 2021 study, “Strong evidence supported only cognitive behavioral therapy for pain, as well as antidepressants and central nervous system depressants for pain and quality of life, but these associations were small.” When conventional treatment yields such lackluster results, it’s natural to want to supplement them with alternative and even experimental therapies.
Alternative and Emerging Therapies for Those Living With Fibromyalgia
Recent study shows that medical cannabis can offer relief from the pain, anxiety, sleeplessness and tension of fibromyalgia with minimal adverse side effects. If you are of age and live in a state where adult-use marijuana is legal, you’ll be able to buy medical cannabis easily at a dispensary near you. In states where marijuana is legal only for medical use, you will need a medical card or other documentation from your doctor to purchase medical cannabis.
If you’ve experienced marijuana at some point in your life, then you have an idea of what to expect from medical cannabis. Though it is generally given more rigorous testing for purity and potency than recreational cannabis, it is the same plant.
Medical cannabis, like recreational cannabis, contains both THC (the chemicals that make you feel high) and CBD (the cannabinoid that help you relax, release tension, manage pain and sleep well). Almost all cannabis is higher in THC than CBD though ratios will vary from strain to strain and product to product.
Medical practitioners may suggest products with a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD to manage pain. If you’d rather lessen the high you can look for products that are higher in CBD than THC or skip the high altogether with products that contain only CBD. Though, it is worth noting that most patients with chronic pain find that at least some THC is helpful in getting optimal relief. The best way to know what works for you is to try a few options and take note of the results. There are lots of ways to try it.
Medical cannabis can be consumed as whole plant preparations, edibles, tinctures, gel caps, topicals and more. The budtenders at your dispensary can talk you through your options and help you find products that may suit your needs, although asking a medical cannabis doctor is always preferred. But it’s a good idea for you to do a little research before you go. If you're new to cannabis, always start with a low amount of THC, and go slow, as they say.
One of your best resources may well be others who use medical cannabis to manage their fibromyalgia symptoms. If you go to a support group and know people who use medical cannabis, ask them about their experience. Explore websites, newsletters, blogs and social media groups for first hand experiences with medical cannabis. What worked for others, might work for you too!
In recent years psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy) have been used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychiatric disorders. They do this by overriding and rewiring neural networks associated with symptoms like chronic pain. If you can imagine chronic pain as a sound or video loop, then you can visualize psychedelics as a force that disrupts the loop. For fibromyalgia patients, this translates as a breaking cycle of chronic pain, at least for periods of time.
A recent article in Practical Pain Management makes that point that though “clinical evidence for the use of psychedelic substances in chronic pain is limited, studies and case reports over the past 50 years have shown potential benefits in cancer pain, phantom limb pain, and cluster headache” which have symptoms and features in common with chronic pain and hold promise for those with fibromyalgia.
Is an effective treatment for chronic pain waiting at the end of the next psychedelics study? It’s early to tell, but early studies hint that there is potential here. It will be an exciting field to watch in the coming months and years.
Whole Body Cryotherapy
A 2021 article published in Advances in Rhumetology claims Whole Body Cryotherapy (Yes, those freezing tanks popping up at all the local gyms, sports rehabilitation centers and spas) is “a fast acting and effective treatment for Fibromyalgia.” According to their study, participants who experienced Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) saw a significant reduction in pain. When it comes to fibromyalgia treatment, that’s the name of the game.
Cryotherapy may sound like a space-age technology, but chances are, you’ve already experienced it in some form. Ever put an ice pack on a swollen ankle? That’s cryotherapy! It works by reducing blood flow to the injured area. This reduces inflammation, swelling and the pain they cause. The ice pack also suppresses nerve activity which can temporarily relieve pain.
Advocates of WBC claim that it benefits everything from sports injuries to Alzheimer’s Disease. (The FDA, on the other hand, finds no evidence that it benefits anything at all.) Empirical evidence however, demonstrates that WBC can relieve whole body pain, at least temporarily. According to an article in the Journal Of Sports Medicine it does it by suppressing nerve activity, pretty much the same way your trusty ice pack did.
If you’re interested in incorporating WCB into your treatment plan, it won’t be difficult to find. WBC is widely available in gyms, sports rehabilitation facilities and spas. Experiences vary from place to place, but they generally consist of being in an ultra-cold (minus 200 - minus 300 Fahrenheit) enclosure for 2-4 minutes with very little protective clothing. If the cold sounds unappealing, here’s a warmer option to consider.
For centuries people have enjoyed the pain-relieving, endorphin-releasing benefits of a little time in the sauna. Today you can enjoy the same benefits, but without all that hot, dry air. Infrared saunas are here and they’re a game-changer for those with chronic pain,
Like traditional saunas, infrared saunas deliver therapeutic heat to the body. Unlike traditional saunas, infrared saunas light to create heat directly in the body while the air around you remains cool. This makes infrared saunas appealing to those who can’t tolerate the extreme heat of traditional saunas.
The Mayo Clinic, reports that there is still insufficient study to determine if infrared saunas benefit those with chronic pain. “On the other hand,” they say, “no adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas. So if you're considering trying a sauna for relaxation, an infrared sauna might be an option.”
There may be a lack of medical study in support of infrared saunas as therapy for chronic pain, but there is no lack of positive testimonials. Among the many singing their praises is Lady Gaga, who has been very public about her struggles with fibromyalgia.
In a recent Instagram post she wrote,”When my body goes into a spasm one thing I find really helps is infrared sauna. I've invested in one. They come in a large box form as well as a low coffin-like form and even some like electric blankets! You can also look around your community for a infrared sauna parlor or homeopathic center that has one.I combine this treatment with marley silver emergency blankets (seen in the photo) that trap in the heat and are very cheap, reusable and effective for detox as well as weight loss!
In order to not overheat my system and cause more inflammation Ifollow this with either a VERY cold bath, ice bath (if u can stand it, it's worth it) or the most environmentally savvy way is to keep many reusable cold packs in the freezer ( or frozen peas' n carrots'!) and pack them around the body in all areas of pain. Hope this helps some of you, it helps me to keep doing my passion, job and the things I love even on days when I feel like I can't get out of bed.”
If you’re interested in giving Gaga’s treatment a try, reach out to a local facility and schedule some time in their infrared sauna. If you find that it works for you, consider investing in a package of appointments, an infrared blanket or even a sauna of your own!
For many years massage therapy has proven to be an effective component of fibromyalgia treatment plans. It’s famous for decreasing stress hormones and raising serotonin levels which supports better sleep, improved mood and an overall sense of well being: all things in short supply when fibromyalgia enters the picture.
There are many massage styles that have been particularly helpful to those living with FM. Among them are swedish massage, hot stone therapy, passive stretching, sports massage, trigger point massage and myofascial release. All of these options have potential, but the last two have gotten a little extra attention in recent years.
Trigger Point Massage
Trigger points are painful areas (or knots) located within the muscles. Trigger point massage uses finger pressure to deactivate these trigger points which can lessen pain over time. Massage therapists report that people with fibromyalgia seem to have more trigger points than those without. This leads them to believe that this style of massage may be particularly beneficial in treating all over body pain experienced by those with Fibromyalgia. Patient experiences seem to support this.
This style of massage applies gentle, sustained pressure onto connective tissues with the goal of relieving pain and restoring motion. Developed for people living with myofascial pain syndrome, this treatment has been used by massage therapists, chiropractors and physical therapists to help those with chronic headaches, muscular pain and even fibromyalgia.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health supports this connection. Their study concluded that only 15 minutes of manual massage focusing on connective tissues on the back of the neck “decreased the patients’ perception of pain, muscle fatigue, and the state of tension-anxiety” in women with fibromyalgia.
To get started, search for licensed massage therapists in your area. Look for therapists who are connected with clinics, mention treatment of fibromyalgia or list massage techniques that pique your curiosity. Read the reviews, speak to the therapist about your needs, make an appointment and give them a try!
While there is so much we still don’t know about fibromyalgia’s cause and cure, there is one thing we do know: patients and practitioners are searching tirelessly for answers. Studies are being conducted. Testimonials are being shared. New combinations and theories of treatment are being explored every day. So subscribe to blogs, join support groups, watch the news for developments, ask about new therapies and stay curious. It could put you in the path of a treatment that makes all the difference in the world.