Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder that causes pain and tenderness throughout your body, as well as fatigue.
It’s believed to be caused by oversensitivity to pain signals in your brain. The areas in which you feel pain may vary in fibromyalgia, and nothing is physically wrong with these areas.
There’s no known cure for fibromyalgia. But a range of medicines, lifestyle measures, alternative therapies, and other approaches are often effective at relieving symptoms and enhancing your quality of life.
Lifestyle Behaviors That May Help Fibromyalgia
While medication is available to treat fibromyalgia, these treatments aren’t effective for everyone.
“The truth is, we don’t have very good medications,” says Don L. Goldenberg, MD, a rheumatologist and professor emeritus of medicine and nursing at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
This means that lifestyle measures are especially important to treat and manage fibromyalgia. They also don’t carry any drug side effects, Dr. Goldenberg notes.
Beneficial behaviors for fibromyalgia include:
Physical exercise — especially regular aerobic exercise — is the single most effective treatment for fibromyalgia, according to the American College of Rheumatology.
At first, exercise may be painful or difficult, but regular physical activity can help improve your symptoms and make exercising easier.
You may want to try walking, biking, swimming, or water aerobics as aerobic activities.
Many doctors also recommend stretching and strength training, Goldenberg says.
Strength training can include using weights, exercise machines, exercise bands, or your own body weight for resistance.
Your doctor can help you develop an exercise routine, or refer you to someone else who can help.
Good Sleep Habits
Getting enough sleep can help you combat the fatigue that often accompanies fibromyalgia.
Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time each day. Also limit daytime napping, since this can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night.
If scheduling your sleep and practicing good sleep hygiene — making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool, for example — aren’t enough to help you get adequate sleep, you may need to see a sleep medicine specialist to evaluate your need for other treatments.
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Take time to learn coping techniques for dealing with inevitable life stresses, and try to limit stress in your daily routine.
To help your mind and body relax, it can be helpful to practice yoga, tai chi, qigong, or other forms of exercise that focus on gentle, controlled movement.
Practicing mindfulness — in which you direct your thoughts toward certain feelings or thoughts in the present moment — may also be helpful for some people.
Certain types of massage may help relieve pain and address other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.
In a small study published in November 2017 in the journal Rheumatology International, researchers found that in women with fibromyalgia, getting a connective tissue massage in combination with exercise resulted in less pain, fatigue, and sleep disruption than exercise alone. (1)
Losing Excess Weight
Although it’s unclear exactly why, people with a higher body-mass index (BMI) are more likely to have fibromyalgia.
In a December 2017 study published in the Journal of Pain, researchers found that a weight-loss program helped obese people with fibromyalgia reduce markers of pain, fatigue, and poor sleep — with the greatest benefits seen in those who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight. (2)
Research indicates that people with fibromyalgia who smoke experience more pain than those who don’t.
In a study published in July 2015 in the journal Pain Medicine, researchers found that people with fibromyalgia who smoked rated their pain as more severe than those who didn’t — but that this difference could mostly be explained by a higher rate of depression in the smokers. (3)
Smoking — and nicotine addiction — are also associated with poorer sleep, according to the American Sleep Association.
When you have fibromyalgia, it’s important to eat healthy, whole foods. Talk to your doctor about creating a healthy meal plan.
Some people with fibromyalgia report improved symptoms when they make certain dietary changes.
It may be helpful to limit your consumption of caffeine, refined sugars, fried foods, red meat, processed foods, and alcohol.
Instead of eating these types of foods, many experts suggest consuming more whole grains, lean protein sources, low-fat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables. You should also drink plenty of water.
Pay attention to how you feel after eating different foods. Avoid any food that seems to worsen your symptoms.
Medication for Fibromyalgia
Medication can reduce the severity of symptoms in some people with fibromyalgia.
There are three drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat fibromyalgia:
- Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Savella (milnacipran) work by changing certain brain chemicals that control pain.
- Lyrica (pregabalin) works by blocking the activity of nerve cells that play a role in pain transmission.
Other fibromyalgia drugs are currently in development and may receive FDA approval soon.
Off-Label Drugs That May Help
Doctors can also prescribe drugs off-label (for uses other than what they’re approved for) to treat fibromyalgia.
Antidepressants and anti-seizure medicines are often used this way.
Many people with fibromyalgia take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines to ease their discomfort, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve).
Injections of lidocaine into a person’s tender points (spots that are painful when pressed) may also help relieve pain.
Drugs That Are Not Beneficial
It’s important to note, Goldenberg says, that opioid drugs have shown very little benefit for fibromyalgia, and they carry significant risks and side effects.
Cannabis (marijuana) has also not been shown to be effective in limited studies, he adds.
Nondrug and Alternative Therapies
Some people use complementary therapies to help manage fibromyalgia symptoms. These may include:
- Chiropractic treatments
- Dietary supplements
While many people claim that these approaches help them personally, more studies are needed to confirm their effectiveness.
RELATED: Easing the Pain of Fibromyalgia Naturally
Cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of psychotherapy that focuses on how thoughts and behaviors can affect symptoms — may also be helpful for many people with fibromyalgia.