By Karen Lee Richards*
Alternative/complementary therapies have become very popular among fibromyalgia patients seeking better, more effective and more natural methods to reduce their pain, fatigue and other FM symptoms.
What Are Alternative and Complementary Therapies?
First, it’s important to clarify the terms “alternative” and “complementary.” Both refer to health care approaches that fall outside the mainstream of Western or conventional medicine. Although most people use the two words interchangeably, there is a significant difference in their meanings.
- Alternative – refers to a non-mainstream therapy that is used in place of conventional medicine.
- Complementary – refers to a non-mainstream therapy that is used in addition to conventional medicine.
The therapies covered in this article are complementary therapies and should be just one part of a comprehensive fibromyalgia treatment plan.
Complementary Therapies for Fibromyalgia
Researchers have evaluated a variety of complementary therapies as possible additions to conventional treatment for fibromyalgia. Keep in mind that every patient is different and may have very different responses to any given therapy.
The following complementary therapies have been found to be effective in reducing various symptoms of FM:
Acupuncture is a form of ancient Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of extremely fine needles at strategic points on the body. Although most often thought of as a treatment for pain, acupuncture can be effective for many other health issues. Traditional Chinese medicine describes acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or “qi” (pronounced CHEE) that is thought to flow through various pathways in the body. Numerous studies have been done on the use of acupuncture for fibromyalgia. The results have been mixed but most found at least some degree of effectiveness for relieving pain, fatigue, anxiety and/or depression.
Balneotherapy, also called spa therapy, involves the use of thermal mineral water from natural springs, as well as natural gases (CO2, iodine, sulphur, radon, etc.), peloids (mud) and other soil-related remedies for the treatment of medical conditions. Several studies looking at the use of balneotherapy for FM found that it could have positive pain-relieving effects.
There are numerous types of massage therapy, each designed for a specific purpose. It is very important to find a massage therapist who has experience working on fibromyalgia patients. Following are eight types of massage techniques that may be beneficial for people with FM:
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Several studies have found various forms of massage therapy to be effective for improving sleep and overall quality of life as well as reducing other symptoms of FM, such as pain, stiffness, fatigue, anxiety and depression.
Myofascial Release Therapy
Myofascial release therapy is an extremely gentle form of bodywork designed to relieve tightness and restrictions in connective tissue (fascia). It decreases the connective tissue’s pull on bones and muscles, allowing the muscle fibers to relax and lengthen. MRT is usually performed by either a physical therapist or a massage therapist who has received specialized training in MRT. Studies have shown that myofascial release improved pain, anxiety levels, quality of sleep and quality of life in FM patients.
Qigong (pronounced chee-GONG) is a Chinese practice that involves coordinating slow flowing movement, deep rhythmic breathing, and a calm meditative state of mind. It is thought to relax the mind, muscles, tendons, joints and other organs, which helps improve circulation, ease stress, reduce pain and restore overall health. Studies have found qigong to be effective for improving pain, function, sleep quality and overall quality of life in FM patients.
Tai chi (pronounced ty-CHEE) is another Chinese practice that involves slow, gentle movements coordinated with deep breathing and mental focus. Originally developed for self-defense, tai chi is now used for stress reduction and to improve balance and flexibility. Studies have found that FM patients who participated in tai chi reported improvements in pain, mood, sleep, exercise capacity and quality of life.
Yoga is an ancient Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline aimed at transforming the body, mind and spirit. It involves breath control, meditation and the adoption of specific body postures. In contemporary practice, yoga focuses more on the physical aspects and is widely used to promote health and relaxation. Studies have shown yoga to be effective for reducing pain and fatigue and improving mood, ability to relax and coping abilities in FM patients.
Other Complementary Therapies
A number of other complementary therapies are still being evaluated. As yet, there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about their effectiveness for fibromyalgia. Some of those therapies include: chiropractic, homeopathy, hypnosis, magnet therapy and Reiki.
* Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.
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