Fibromyalgia: 3 Things Patients Can Do for Themselves

Medical Author: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Medical Editor: Leslie J. Schoenfield, MD, PhD

It is not unusual for a patient with fibromyalgia to ask the doctor: "What can I do to help relieve my symptoms? After all, I am not very interested in medications."

Some patients with fibromyalgia make this or similar statements to their doctors because they are often younger and many do not have underlying (additional ongoing) medical conditions (although some do). Therefore, they are not accustomed to taking medications regularly.

Are there really ways that patients can help themselves? Yes. Here are the big three:

  1. Self-education. Understanding the battlefield is often half the battle. As people with fibromyalgia develop a better understanding of their condition, it becomes far easier to cope with and address. Furthermore, for some, simply the realization that the condition does not threaten the body's organs and often improves over time can greatly relieve anxiety. The anxiety is often due to concern about the cause of the frequent pains of fibromyalgia. I would like to offer MedicineNet.com's Fibromyalgia article as an excellent resource for patients and their family members to become more familiar with the basic concepts of fibromyalgia and its diagnosis and treatment options. To further complement the consultation with the doctor, other sources of information include the Arthritis Foundation and local hospital support groups.

  2. Stress reduction. Reducing stress can help with muscle relaxation and improve non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM) sleep. Inadequate sleep of this type is felt to play a central role in promoting the symptoms of fibromyalgia. The response to stress differs from person to person. The reduction of stress in the treatment of fibromyalgia must be individualized for each patient. Stress reduction might include simple stress modification at home or work, biofeedback, relaxation tapes, psychological counseling, exercise activities such as yoga and/or support among family members, friends, and doctors. Sometimes, changes in environmental factors (such as noise, temperature, and weather exposure) can exacerbate the symptoms of fibromyalgia, and these factors need to be modified.

  3. Exercise. Aerobic activities that exercise the muscles can work together with the methods above to greatly relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Many experts on fibromyalgia feel that exercise works by promoting the non-REM sleep that is commonly deficient in patients with this illness. Low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, cycling, walking, and stationary cross-country ski machines can be very effective. For patients who are unfamiliar with exercising options, a physical therapist can provide an ideal source of instruction. With any new exercise program, it is important to understand that a mild increase in aching in the first two weeks is expected. This increased aching is especially likely to occur when the patient has not been exercising and the muscles are deconditioned. Sometimes, applications of cold packs to sore muscles and tendons after exercising can help relieve muscle inflammation and soreness.