Fibromyalgia is a potentially debilitating condition most often characterized by widespread body pain. Those living with fibromyalgia often undergo years of specialist referrals and medical testing prior to receiving a diagnosis. Since there are no definitive medical tests to confirm a diagnosis, fibromyalgia is considered a diagnosis of exclusion.
While fibromyalgia was once believed to be a condition of the joints and muscles, researchers now believe fibromyalgia to be a neurological condition. Those affected show increased neurological activity and become increasingly sensitive to pain signals. While medications can help reduce some of the pain and discomfort, they are not universally effective. Many people living with fibromyalgia find they benefit from the services of a skilled physical therapist.
Understanding the Many Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
The symptoms of fibromyalgia typically vary from person to person and can change from day to day. In general, fibromyalgia pain felt on both sides of the body, above and below the waist. The fact that fibromyalgia does not cause joints or muscle damage does not make the condition any easier to live with. If you are living with a fibromyalgia diagnosis, you may be painfully familiar with many of the following symptoms:
• Pain or tenderness in your muscles, tendons and around your joints
• Numbness and tingling, particularly of the hands and feet
• Unrefreshing sleep and chronic fatigue
• Difficulty with memory or concentr (fibro fog)
• Morning stiffness
• Increased pain and stiffness after prolonged inactivity
• Allodynia (pain caused by a typically non-painful stimulus)
• Digestive disturbances
• Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
• Sensitivity to light and sound
While fibromyalgia is not considered a genetic condition, it can run in families. Researchers now believe that the condition can be triggered by environmental factors. Standard pain-relievers, including prescription pain medications, typically offer little relief.
Standard Fibromyalgia Treatment Options
Health care providers typically resist prescribing opioid medications to fibromyalgia patients. These drugs are shown to offer little pain relief and are highly addictive. Today, physicians typically recommend anticonvulsant or antidepressant medications to their fibromyalgia patients. While these medications are shown to relieve nerve pain, anticonvulsants and antidepressants are not uniformly effective or well-tolerated.
This makes fibromyalgia pain challenging to treat. Most people living with fibromyalgia do best with a multi-faceted approach, combining medications, exercise, and self-care. Some of the most recommended treatments options include:
• Prescription Medications – such as Cymbalta, Lyrica, and Savella
• Improving Sleep – by establishing a consistent routine or taking sleep medications
• Learning Self-Pacing Techniques – alternating activity with periods of rest
• Stress Reduction – learning stress management is shown to reduce symptoms
• Alternative Pain Relief – meditation, acupuncture, and massage are often beneficial
• Physical Activity – activity and gentle stretching are shown to reduce pain and fatigue
The Importance of Regular Exercise for Symptom Management
When you are living with a medical condition that causes pain, when movement hurts, it’s difficult to imagine that movement and exercise could help you feel better. While doctors used to advise those with fibromyalgia seek rest rather than activity, those notions are outdated. Studies confirm that most fibromyalgia patients benefit from moderate exercise.
While it’s important to select activities that do not cause excessive stress on your muscles and joints, moderate activity could help alleviate your discomfort. Physical activity has a direct and lasting impact on your body and your brain. Just a few of the known benefits of exercise for those living with fibromyalgia include:
• Keeping muscles and joints healthy and flexible – physical deterioration can cause symptoms to worsen and increase your risk of developing additional health complications.
• Relieving Stress on Painful Joints – inactivity causes muscle loss, muscle weakness creates joint stress, joint stress can cause arthritis, which can be more painful in those diagnosed with fibromyalgia
• Boosting endorphins – exercise, particularly aerobic activity, helps to restore the balance of the neurochemicals in your brain, the chemicals associated with stress, anxiety, and Endorphins also provide natural pain relief
• Improving sleep – sleep is essential for managing fibromyalgia. Sleep deprivation is well-known for increasing pain sensitivity and can even cause symptoms mimicking fibromyalgia syndrome in healthy individuals.
• Increasing Serotonin Levels – Exercise boosts serotonin naturally. Several medications prescribed for fibromyalgia reduce pain by increasing serotonin.
Although exercise is one of the most impactful aspects of fibromyalgia treatment, many people living with fibro fear that increasing their movement will intensify their pain. That may explain why so many doctors are recommending physical therapy to their fibromyalgia patients.
Physical therapy can help those living with fibromyalgia learn to move in a way that does not intensify their symptoms while offering alternate methods of pain relief. A multi-disciplinary approach, a combination of treatment options, is often the most promising. Those living with fibromyalgia syndrome often find the guidance of a qualified physical therapist beneficial for relieving their discomfort.
The Diverse Role of Physical Therapy for Fibromyalgia Treatment
Physical therapy is a safe and proven method of getting the type of movement and exercise people living with fibromyalgia need to feel better. You should know that a physical therapist is a movement specialist. A skilled physical therapist can recommend an individualized treatment based on your unique needs, based on the way you experience pain. Some of the many services typically provided by a physical therapist known to be beneficial for fibromyalgia patients include:
• Range of Motion Exercises – Your physical therapist may use manual therapy techniques to increase your range of motion while you relax. Range of motion exercises are often used in combination with other movements and stretches that you control. Your physical therapist can teach you a customized series of range of motion exercises based on your needs.
• Patient Education – The more you understand your condition, the better equipped you will be at managing your self-care and alleviating your symptoms. Your physical therapist can offer professional insight for symptom management and help you learn to thrive in spite of your diagnosis.
• Exercise Instruction – Increasing your strength and endurance will help minimize your pain. A physical therapist can teach you to perform your exercises properly and suggest additional activities to strengthen your body. Since your body may respond to some types of exercise more favorably than others, a certified physical therapist can instruct you in the types of exercise least likely to intensify your symptoms.
• Deep Tissue Massage or Myofascial Release-Massage and manual pressure can decrease the tension in your muscles and fascia, the fibers that encase your muscles. Massage promotes muscle relaxation and reduces stiffness. Massage is shown to reduce pain, increase flexibility, improve circulation, reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and reduce pain levels.
• Ultrasound Therapy – Ultrasound technology uses sound waves to generate heat in painful areas. Ultrasound therapy reduces inflammation, improves circulation, decreases stiffness, and alleviates muscle spasms. This non-invasive pain-relieving treatment option has been used successfully for years to minimize fibromyalgia pain.
• Nerve Stimulation – Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is often recommended to those living with fibromyalgia to help manage their pain. Your physical therapist will use strategically placed electrodes to deliver electrical impulses to nerve pathways. TENS therapy reduces the number of pain signals reaching your brain.
• Heat Therapy – The application of heat is a tried and true method of pain relief. Heat therapy relaxes muscles, increases circulation, and helps inflamed tissues heal. Depending on your needs, your physical therapist may recommend dry heat, moist heat, or hydrotherapy to ease the discomfort caused by your condition.
Fibromyalgia is a potentially debilitating chronic pain disorder. A skilled physical therapist can help you alleviate your pain and soften the grip fibromyalgia has on your life. When selecting a physical therapist for fibromyalgia pain, it is essential that your practitioner is knowledgeable about fibromyalgia and experienced in treating those living with the disorder. While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, working with a knowledgeable physical therapist can help ease your pain.
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