Managing Fibromyalgia: It Isn’t Only About Meds
Treating fibromyalgia isn’t just about medications. Education about the disease and a carefully planned exercise program also help manage the pain and improve the quality of life.
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that causes widespread pain, fatigue and problems thinking. If you have it, you may also suffer from digestive problems and mood swings. The exact cause of fibromyalgia is not known. Because of this, there is no one single treatment that works. Medications are only a part of the approach to treatment. A good treatment plan should also include education, exercise and support.
You might not think of education as a form of treatment. But studies show that understanding more about fibromyalgia and how to manage its symptoms improves quality of life.
To educate yourself about fibromyalgia, you might want to set these goals:
- Learn the basics. A basic understanding of fibromyalgia is important. It helps to know that it is a condition of heightened sensitivity to pain, and that while it’s frustrating, it’s not fatal.
- Overcome a fear of exercise. It is common for people with fibromyalgia to have pain after exercise and so avoid it completely. With help from your doctor, a therapist or support group, you can learn how to work within your abilities and overcome your fear. Fibromyalgia is not the same as arthritis; pain doesn’t mean you are damaging joints or other tissue. You may feel pain at first after exercise, but the pain does go away.
- Practice moderation. You will learn not to overdo it when you are feeling good.
Because pain keeps you immobile, people with fibromyalgia tend to be out of shape. Studies show that a program of regular exercise that includes gentle stretching helps to relieve pain. Exercise also has anti-depressive effects. Check with your doctor first to see what the best exercise program is for you. Principles of your exercise program might include:
- Doing aerobic exercises. Aerobic exercise uses your large muscles. Good choices are jogging, bicycling or swimming. Water aerobics is especially helpful for people with fibromyalgia.
- Working out when you are feeling good. Take advantage of your good days when you have lots of energy.
- Starting slowly. Fibromyalgia can lead to deconditioning. So it is important to start out slowly. You may want to try a walking program and work up to more intense exercise.
Work with your doctor on a medication plan. Medications are used to treat the symptoms, not to cure fibromyalgia.
- Antidepressants. Your doctor may start you on an antidepressant that raises the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals are involved with signaling between nerves. You may be given medications that increase norepinephrine and/or serotonin, two neurotransmitters that work to help inhibit pain. Often, lower doses are used to reduce pain and improve the quality of sleep.
- Treatment for arthritis. If you have both fibromyalgia and arthritis, your doctor may prescribe over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Naproxen (Aleve) may also be prescribed. Even though these are over-the-counter drugs, it is important to take them only as your doctor prescribes.
- Other medications. Lyrica (pregabalin) is a drug that has been approved by the FDA to specifically treat fibromyalgia. It is an anti-seizure medication that has also been shown to help ease pain in diabetic neuropathy.
Other tips to help you manage
- Get enough sleep. Get to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends and when on vacations.
- Make a plan for a bad day. Make a list of distractions that help you through a bad day, like funny movies or good books. Spend time with a friend with positive energy and a good sense of humor.
- Join a support group with others who are successfully managing fibromyalgia. Learning how others cope can be a great source of hope and inspiration.