Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions. Although there’s no cure at this time, we do know that self-care is very effective in managing Fibromyalgia symptoms and minimizing the impact on daily life.
Individuals with Fibromyalgia experience pain or tenderness that is very sensitive to the touch and in greater intensity than others, even under gentle pressure. Therefore, Fibromyalgia is considered to be a “pain regulation” or “neurosensory” disorder.
The pain can happen just about anywhere throughout the body, and lasts for days, weeks, months, or longer. It can also come and go throughout the body in “flares” and it often occurs along with stiffness, fatigue, “fibro fog,” and mental health issues. It can sometimes feel debilitating and cause a lot of distress.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that up to 7.7 percent of women and 4.9 percent of men experience fibromyalgia. These rates are higher than in Europe or South America.
Researchers still don’t know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but it does not seem to be the result of physical damage to the bones, joints, or muscles. The pain may be triggered and worsened by infections, injury, inflammation, or emotional stress. Fibromyalgia tends to occur in families, however no specific genes have yet been found that predispose someone to getting it.
Typical symptoms of fibromyalgia
Some of the common symptoms of fibromyalgia include
- Pain or tenderness in the muscles, soft tissues, and/or bones throughout the body (muscle pain, joint pain), including the arms, legs, head, chest, abdomen, back, and buttocks
- Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
- Fatigue, inability to get a good night’s sleep, restless leg syndrome, feeling stiff upon waking up
- “Fibro fog” (memory problems, confusion, inability to pay close attention or concentrate)
- Headaches (migraines, tension headaches)
- Pain in the face or jaw, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
- Increased sensitivity to light, odors, noise, and temperature
- Mental health issues (anxiety, depression)
- Gut ssues (bloating, constipation, IBS, GERD, difficulty swallowing)
- Painful menstrual periods
- Overactive bladder, pelvic pain
The risk for fibromyalgia is higher in people who experience other conditions such as chronic back pain, lupus, polymyalgia rheumatica, spondyloarthritis, osteoarthritis, inflammatory myopathy, systemic inflammatory arthropathies, hypothyroidism, endometriosis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). It is also possible to experience several of these at the same time. Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose because there isn’t a definitive test for it, however your doctor will likely do a physical exam and medical tests to try to determine which of these you may be experiencing.
Nutrition and fitness strategies to deal with fibromyalgia
There are many things that you can do to help alleviate these symptoms and reduce the impact of fibromyalgia on your life. The first thing is to know that even though it’s difficult to diagnose and doesn’t have a definitive test, fibromyalgia is a real disease and research is being done to try to better understand and eventually cure it.
While there isn’t a cure just yet, there are ways to manage fibromyalgia symptoms and self-care plays an important role in reducing its impact. According to the American College of Rheumatology, “patient self-care is vital to improving symptoms and daily function. In concert with medical treatment, healthy lifestyle behaviors can reduce pain, increase sleep quality, lessen fatigue, and help you cope better with fibromyalgia.”
While more research is underway, physical exercise is currently considered to be the most effective treatment for fibromyalgia. Cardiovascular fitness training (“cardio”) can ease symptoms by helping with pain and improving sleep. Ideally, doing 30 minutes of cardio three times each week is recommended. Low-impact exercises like walking, biking, stretching, yoga, tai chi, and water-based exercises are helpful. If regular exercise is new for you or feels like a lot, simply start low and go slow to create a comfortable routine. It may take time to build up your endurance and the intensity of physical activity that you can do.
Eating a healthy and nutritious diet is also highly recommended. While there currently isn’t a huge amount of strong evidence to recommend one comprehensive dietary strategy to help with fibromyalgia symptoms, a few small studies show promising results for the following nutrition recommendations:
- If you are low in vitamin D, taking a supplement can help reduce fibromyalgia pain. As with any nutrition supplement, ensure you are buying yours from a reputable source. Check out professional brands recommended by doctors and nutritionists in my wellness store.
- Additional supplements that may help include Chlorella green algae, Coenzyme Q10, acetyl-L-carnitine, magnesium, iron, vitamins C and E, probiotics, and Nigella sativa (Black cumin) seeds.
- Different types of elimination diets have helped different people, such as the vegetarian diet (eliminates meat, poultry, and fish), vegan diet (eliminates all animal products including dairy and eggs), the low FODMAP diet (reduces intake of short-chain carbohydrates that are fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols), a low calorie diet (reduces calorie intake), gluten-free diet (eliminates the protein gluten), or a diet free from both MSG (monosodium glutamate) and aspartame (an artificial sweetener).
- Reducing inflammation will provide some pain relief. An anti-inflammatory diet has been demonstrated to be effective for many people in my clinical practice.
- The Mediterranean diet has been shown to decrease fatigue and improve moods.
- The replacement of some foods may also help, including replacing non-olive oil fats with olive oil and replacing non-ancient grains with ancient grains such as Khorasan wheat, also known as Kamut.
This is a long list of potential dietary strategies and more research is needed. Because many of these should not be combined together, it’s wise to approach these dietary changes cautiously and work with a registered dietitian who is knowledgeable in dealing with your symptoms and can work with you to choose the best path forward.
Lifestyle tips to deal with fibromyalgia symptoms
Improving sleep patterns and sleep hygiene can also be very helpful if you’re dealing with fibromyalgia. For example, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and limit stimulants like caffeine and nicotine as much as possible, especially in the evenings. Establish a relaxing nightly routine that may include reduced screen time, dimmed lights, soft music, meditation, and a warm bath. Also, keep your bedroom comfortable for sleeping by keeping it dark, quiet, and cool. If you suspect you may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, reach out to your healthcare provider.
Managing stress and moods can also help relieve symptoms. If you experience symptoms of fibromyalgia, pace yourself and balance your need to work and rest by taking breaks when necessary. Also, make time to relax each day and try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and stress reduction techniques. If you feel lonely or isolated, consider joining a support group that you find to be positive and encouraging—one that shares helpful coping techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy with a therapist or counselor may help by focusing on how thoughts and behaviors affect pain and other symptoms. If you have any mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression, seek out professional help.
Fibromyalgia is a complex condition of chronic widespread pain. It’s thought to result from the brain becoming more sensitive to pain signals, as if even a small signal becomes amplified and feels much stronger. In addition to the pain, people with fibromyalgia tend to also have difficulty sleeping and experience fatigue, stiffness, changing moods, and “fibro fog.”
The American College of Rheumatology recommends that you “look forward, not backward. Focus on what you need to do to get better, not what caused your illness.” Self-care is the mainstay for improving symptoms of fibromyalgia. Current research suggests that the most effective treatment is physical activity. In addition to that, there are several dietary and lifestyle strategies that can help, including certain diets and supplements, improving sleep, and managing stress.