"I don't believe fibromyalgia is a real thing," a friend recently told me when I mentioned having run into someone suffering from it.
This surprised me, as I thought we were past thinking the syndrome, which manifests itself mainly as chronic pain, fatigue, depression and sleep problems, is all in the sufferer's head. Not so, apparently.
The condition, which is tricky to diagnose, has a cluster of symptoms: you hurt, you can't sleep, you're sad, you're tired all the time. Could be anything, could be nothing.
Not surprisingly, since diseases that mainly affect women are the ones usually deemed "all in our heads," women are four times more likely to suffer from fibromyalgia.
All that "psychosomatic" business may be about to change because of new research. In the meantime, what can you do?
What the experts say
"Some drugs like Cymbalta have benefit for fibromyalgia patients. [Antidepressants] like this operate on molecules in the brain, contributing to the idea that fibromyalgia is a central nervous system disorder. Our hands and feet, which play a role in regulating body temperature and adjusting blood flow during exercise, have excessive nerve endings. These [extremities] could be painful, but as well, if there's a problem regulating blood flow, muscles could be under-supplied creating a lactic acid buildup that leads to cramps and achiness in the body. Women have more of these nerve endings to begin with. A lot of fibromyalgia patients have a history of stressful events that may drive the overproduction of these nerve fibres."
FRANK RICE, president and chief scientist, Integrated Tissue Dynamics, Rensselaer, New York
"We took women who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and assigned some to an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction intervention, which included meditation, a body scan technique where attention is brought to areas of the body, and some gentle hatha yoga. At two and four months, we found depressive symptoms were significantly alleviated in the intervention group. The women found it a good experience to separate the suffering from their symptoms. Mindfulness approaches moment-to-moment experience with an attitude of non-judgment and acceptance that can reduce the feeling of suffering. There was a reduction in pain at two months."
SANDRA SEPHTON, professor, department of psychological and brain sciences, U of Louisville, Kentucky
"Fibromyalgia patients have to be particular about what they put into their bodies. No processed food or anything refined, and supplementation with probiotics. Patients also tend to be susceptible to blood sugar imbalances. Fresh vegetables are a source of magnesium, and fibromyalgia patients tend to have very low magnesium levels, which can result in muscle pain. I recommend supplementing with magnesium. Nuts and seeds are a source of magnesium. Seaweed is good because there may be a thyroid imbalance. No alcohol."
SANDY BADGLEY, registered holistic nutritionist, Toronto
"Hypothalamic dysfunction accounts for much of the symptomatology, except the pain. The reason for the pain is that muscles are like springs; they take more energy to relax than to contract. The treatment is called the S.H.I.N.E. protocol: S for sleep, H for hormonal support, I for [treating] infections, N for nutritional support and E for exercise. Excess sugar aggravates the condition. Most people do well with a high protein and high salt diet. Triggers are anything that disrupts sleep: a newborn baby, any hormonal problem like thyroid, menopause, dozens of infections, nutritional deficiencies, chronic stresses. You'll see a doubling of the risk in those who have suffered child abuse."
JACOB TEITELBAUM, author, The Fatigue And Fibromyalgia Solution, Kona, Hawaii
"Anti-inflammatory diets significantly reduce the pain. Often if you eliminate gluten and dairy, you will see a noticeable change. Increasing proteins and carbs is helpful. Physical therapy, acupuncture and deep massage therapy with heat are amazing. I also test patients for candida overgrowth and for food allergens. I look at the adrenal glands. Sometimes detoxing can help."
SUSHMA SHAH, naturopath, Toronto
"We feel it is a central nervous system problem. There has been some research looking at it as an autoimmune illness, but it's too early to develop a blood test. The FDA approved three drugs that help with sleep and pain in 30 per cent of the population. Most important is an interdisciplinary approach. People do well when they have more control over the treatments that work for them. People vary so much; it's complicated for a health care provider to identify what works for that patient. We're trying to find funds for research on exercise, nutrition, acupuncture, massage, water therapy."
LYNN MATALLANA, founder and past president, National Fibromyalgia Association, Newport Beach, California
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