Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks


Women's Issues
by Carolyn Ross, MD

Simply put, fibromyalgia means pain in the muscles. But it is not pain that results from injury or overuse. Rather, it has no apparent cause and may occur in many places throughout the body. Some typical tender points include: the base of the skull where the neck muscles insert, shoulder and upper back area, the upper buttocks area, or just inside the knee. The pain itself has been described as sometimes dull and achy, sometimes numb or tingling. It can be mildly uncomfortable or intense and debilitating, and it is chronic in nature. Sleep disturbance, fatigue, and depression are common in women with fibromyalgia, though their causes are not well understood.

Fibromyalgia is a condition that is not necessarily cured, but can be managed. It will be worth the time and effort to learn what works for you. Fibromyalgia sufferers often report that once they hit upon an effective treatment regimen, they must keep up with it; and they often have long pain-free periods as a result. If they get busy or hectic and neglect themselves, the pain returns. Follow along with us as we explore some management techniques.

Your Physician or Nurse Practitioner

Your physician or nurse practitioner will evaluate your condition by taking a history of your health as well as onset and symptoms of your condition. This will be followed by a physical exam and blood tests. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed when other similar or related conditions have been ruled out and your symptoms match a particular profile. If fibromyalgia is the diagnosis, be assured that your illness, while painful, is not life-threatening.
Depending upon the severity of your symptoms and whether they are accompanied by sleep disturbance or depression, your physician or nurse practitioner can offer some prescription medication. Antidepressant medication may be prescribed for sleep and mood disturbance. Muscle relaxants such as Flexeril taken at night may also relieve pain and improve sleep. Heat therapy in the form of hot compresses or hot baths or showers may be recommended to warm up affected muscles and improved diminished flexibility. Over-the-counter antiinflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen) rarely help.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care may be a useful addition to your treatment strategy. After evaluating your condition using their unique 'hands-on' approach, your chiropractor can provide spinal adjustments and heat or muscle therapy. They can also recommend appropriate stretching exercises.

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Your TCM practitioner can provide you with some significant pain relief for fibromyalgia. Chinese medical theory holds that diseases are brought about by either internal or external factors. External causes arise mainly from geography, weather, and environment; also know as 'wind, cold, fire, dampness and heat'. Internal causes mainly include six emotions, eating habits and too much or too little activity. Where imbalances are diagnosed, balance is restored. Fibromyalgia does not have a specific diagnosis in TCM, but is sometimes called 'muscle Bi'. Its symptoms are mainly caused by blood stasis with energy deficiency or stagnation.

Fibromyalgia may be treated by acupuncture and electrostimulation twice per week. This generally reduces pain for at least two or three days. A treatment course of four weeks usually stabilizes symptoms of the illness, although it is not completely cured

Stress Reduction

Research studies indicate that a program of stress reduction and relaxation provides significant pain relief and is a vital component in management of fibromyalgia. The first step in your relaxation program is to buy out some time for yourself from your busy schedule. Women often become overextended by not being able to say no and by failing to delegate. Begin by identifying some tasks that you could delegate, then ask for the appropriate help. In saying no, start with the little things, followed by some of the larger optional requests. You may be surprised at how much you are doing that others would be happy to take over. Remember, it means your health.

Meditation: Learning to meditate can provide you with a very powerful relaxation tool. Meditation calms the mind and body, enhancing production of the relaxation hormones.

Deep breathing: Execute a full, deep inhalation through your nostrils. Relax your belly muscles to allow your lungs to fill fully. Then slowly exhale through your mouth, letting your stomach and chest collapse. Repeat until you are feeling calm. (Try breathing in to the count of 4 and out to the count of 8).

Progressive muscle relaxation: Sitting or lying comfortably, take a few deep breaths. then tense and relax the following body parts, in order: face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, abdomen, pelvis, thighs, calves and feet.

Then shake your hands and imagine any remaining tension flowing out through your fingertips.

Therapeutic Massage

Deep tissue massage eases muscle spasms and reduces pain. Also, a regular program of massage is an aid to stress reduction which helps prevent recurring bouts of muscle pain.


Research has not yet identified specific nutritional relationships with fibromyalgia. Clinicians, however, have observed that often the impaired functioning that results from fibromyalgia can lead to poor eating habits. That is, lacking energy, many sufferers come to rely too heavily on convenience or pre-packaged foods. If that is the case with you, resolve to cook and eat more fresh foods.

With the right planning, avoiding packaged mixes and convenience foods need not be difficult. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be eaten raw, with little or no preparation. It may cost a little more, but you can purchase ready-to-eat salad greens and other vegetables--no washing or chopping required. Whole grains such as old-fashioned oatmeal can be cooked in the microwave in two minutes. Frozen vegetables and chicken breast can be quickly stir-fried for a healthy meal. Canned beans can provide a convenient source of protein and fiber until you're well enough to cook up your own beans. One-pot meals can last for several days. Also, can you enlist the help of your spouse/partner or children in the kitchen?

You may also find helpful a good, broad-spectrum vitamin supplement designed for women. It should include plenty of vitamins C and E, the B vitamins, calcium and iron.

Physical Activity

Exercise is a universal recommendation for managing fibromyalgia, whether mild or severe. In fact, the right kind of exercise can prevent mild pain from becoming severe. Aerobic activity can help improve sleep. Women who exercise regularly usually experience the most improvement in their condition. Your first step is to get your physician's approval and, if you're working with a chiropractor or physical therapist, follow their recommendations.

The keys to exercising comfortably and consistently are: listen to your body, keep your activity low impact, and maintain a regular program of stretching. If your muscles are stiff, begin with a warm shower or compress, followed by gentle stretching. Then try a few minutes of gentle walking or other low-impact aerobic exercise (water exercises in a heated pool can be great). If you are not sore afterward, continue daily with that duration, increasing 5 minutes each week or so until you work up to 30 or 40 minutes. If your exercise session results in pain, go back to the more comfortable level. Be patient, it may take some time to find a comfortable level and increase it. Your aerobic session should be followed by gentle stretching.

If you are in severe pain, start with the simplest movement. First, take your hot shower or use your warm compresses. Then try, for example, sitting in a chair and moving your head from side to side; then lift your arms over your head if you can; then bend forward and back at the waist. Next, try walking. If need be, start with one circuit around your living room. When you can, try measured walks in the neighborhood. Again, be patient, it may take awhile to achieve this level of fitness. Listen to your body: lessened or no increased pain is a signal to proceed; increased pain is a signal to cut back. Remember, it's worth the effort, because inactivity will generally make you worse.

Once you have your pain under better control, you may wish to investigate some alternative forms of exercise such as yoga or t'ai chi. If you explore these options, check with your physician and be sure to seek a qualified exercise instructor.

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