Can you imagine feeling like you have the flu all the time? Or having muscle aches like you overdid it at the gym, but every day? That’s how many people describe what it feels like to have fibromyalgia. Besides being painful, fibromyalgia is a difficult condition for a number of reasons. It can be hard to diagnose, it’s difficult to treat, and there is no visible manifestation of illness.
So what exactly is fibromyalgia? It’s a chronic illness with unpredictable flare ups and periods of remission. It’s characterized by pain in your body’s fibrous tissues, such as the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. In most cases, the pain of fibromyalgia is also combined with other types of symptoms. Most common is debilitating fatigue, sleep problems, depression, concentration and memory issues, and muscle knots and spasms.
Diagnosing fibromyalgia can be one of the most frustrating aspects of this condition. Arriving at a positive diagnosis often takes months or years of doctor’s appointments, tests, and often ruling out a host of other possibilities. Fibromyalgia doesn’t cause any visible damage to your body and there’s no blood test to detect this condition, nor does it seem to be rheumatic or inflammatory in nature.
A diagnosis is often arrived at by the existence of pain at a number of specific test points throughout your body or through a common group of symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. However, fibromyalgia is considered to be a syndrome, which is an illness associated with a wide variety of symptoms often unrelated to fatigue and muscle aches, such as headaches, sensory hypersensitivity, digestive issues, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. The fact that every patient experiences different symptoms only makes diagnosing fibromyalgia more difficult. In addition, fibromyalgia is often confused with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, because both conditions are associated with profound fatigue.
While scientists have some clues, the exact cause of fibromyalgia is still not known. People with fibromyalgia tend to have other health issues, are sedentary, or have other family members with this condition. There also appears to be an increased risk associated with emotional trauma, occurring more frequently in patients who have a post-traumatic stress, a history of abuse, or who suffer from depression or anxiety.
There’s no cure for fibromyalgia, and standard Western treatments are aimed at symptom control. Anti-depressants, sleep medications, and over-the-counter pain relievers are often used.Some health care providers also suggest physical therapy, massage, physical activity, and the use of heat.
Many patients wonder if acupuncture and Chinese medicine can be helpful in treating their fibromyalgia, and the research in this area is positive. A recent review of several studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating fibromyalgia found that it helped with pain relief, reduced muscle stiffness, and enhanced sleep. The researchers also found that in the studies that used electric acupuncture, (the use of gentle electric stimulation to the needles) the results were more effective than using acupuncture alone.
Acupuncture can be effective in treating fibromyalgia in a number of ways. Scientists have documented several physiological changes that occur during acupuncture. It ramps up your body’s opioid-like system to relieve pain. Acupuncture also triggers an increase in the circulation of certain neurotransmitters in your brain that help to relieve stress, reduce depression, regulate mood, and enhance sleep. Acupuncture also increases your circulation, which bathes achy muscles with blood and nutrients, helps to relieve pain and tension, and helps to improve your range of motion.
The goal of acupuncture is to reduce pain, control associated symptoms, reduce flare-ups, and prolong periods of remission. An acupuncture treatment plan is based on your symptoms and tailored to your specific needs. In addition to acupuncture, a practitioner of Chinese medicine may include other treatments for the most effective results. These include:
- Chinese herbs. There are numerous herbs in the Chinese pharmacy that may be used to treat fibromyalgia. Herbs are combined into a formula to address your symptoms as well as to support and prolong the effects of your acupuncture treatments.
- Heat therapy. Through the use of far-infrared light or moxabustion (plant material burned near specific points), heat therapy can help loosen tight muscles, relieve pain, increase circulation, and speed healing.
- Tui Na. This is a manual therapy that is similar to massage. It uses specific movements, pressure, and stretching to decrease pain, increase circulation, improve range of motion, and promote healing.
- Qi Gong. Your practitioner may provide you with Qi Gong movements to practice at home. Qi Gong is a combination of gentle movements, meditation, and breathing that can help improve your energy, promote better circulation, and increase your range of motion.
- Food therapy.Eating the right foods can help improve your digestion, and ultimately your energy. Your practitioner can develop a dietary plan based on your current symptoms and unique needs.
While fibromyalgia can be a confusing and frustrating condition, it doesn’t need to control your life. A practitioner of Chinese medicine can work with you to develop a treatment strategy to reduce pain, increase your energy, promote better sleep, and enhance the quality of your life.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.