Treatment for fibromyalgia is generally multifaceted, in part because no single medication or approach is likely to address all the symptoms. For example, low-impact exercise, nutritional adjustments, physical therapy, and biofeedback are some typical approaches that can increase daily functioning.
Other forms of care that may also improve function for the fibromyalgia patient include massage-myofascial release therapy, manual manipulation (chiropractic or osteopathic), and/or cranio-sacral therapy.1
The goals of fibromyalgia treatment may vary depending on the individual's specific symptoms. For many, finding effective symptom relief is a process of trial and error and may involve both traditional Western medical approaches as well as complementary and lifestyle approaches.
The symptoms of fibromyalgia are often interconnected. Pain may feel worse because the individual is feeling anxious, has slept fitfully, or hasn’t moved around much. Alleviating one symptom can make a major difference in easing overall symptoms.
Easing into Gentle Exercises
Exercise is considered the most effective treatment for relieving symptoms. It improves muscle tone, lowers stress, produces endorphins (the body's natural analgesic), leads to sounder sleep, and helps prevent weight gain.
Unfortunately, exercise can be difficult for individuals who are already in pain and experiencing a great deal of fatigue. The key is to start slow, take a day or two off in between exercise sessions at first, and focus on low-impact moves.
A new exercise program may increase pain at first, but staying with it can pay off eventually in better daily functioning. Aerobic exercise is best, and the near-weightless feeling of water exercises in a warm pool—called water therapy—may be better tolerated than land-based exercises. A physical therapist, physiatrist, or other appropriately trained health professional can develop an individualized, safe program.
Getting More Restorative Sleep
Sleep problems are one of the most pervasive—and challenging—symptoms of fibromyalgia. Exercising during the day and getting treatment for restless legs syndrome can be helpful first steps.
These strategies may help pave the way to a better night’s sleep:
- Establish a regular sleep/wake cycle, even on the weekends
- Develop a relaxing ritual before bed
- Stop using electronic devices—from cell phones to television—close to bedtime
- Limit caffeine to the morning and avoid smoking, alcohol, and other drugs that may disrupt sleep
If these efforts do not provide the needed relief, medication or supplements may be helpful in getting the deep, restorative sleep that is often elusive with fibromyalgia. (See Medications to Ease Fibromyalgia Symptoms.)
Research has pointed to approaches often referred to as “mind-body” practices that may help with the stress and anxiety common with fibromyalgia.
These practices can range from individual meditation to working with a therapist to help develop a more positive outlook.2
Food sensitivities are common in individuals with fibromyalgia. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in refined foods (such as sugar, pasta, and white bread) can be helpful in reducing symptoms. Lean meats and fish, as well as vegetarian options such as tofu and beans, are generally recommended over red meat. Some small research studies have found benefits from eliminating aspartame, MSG, and gluten from the diet.3
Low levels of magnesium are also common in those with fibromyalgia, and some doctors advise supplements of magnesium, either alone or in combination with the medication amitriptyline. Magnesium may also be provided in patch form.
The doctor may suggest other supplements. Patients using any treatments on their own, including herbal remedies, should keep the doctor informed to avoid potential interactions or sensitivities.
Using Manual Therapies
Manual therapies include many “hands-on” approaches. Some categories of manual therapies that have evidence of specific help for fibromyalgia include massage-myofascial release, manual manipulation, and cranio-sacral therapy.1
Massage can be relaxing for anyone, but some researchers have found that massage-myofascial therapy can result in lower levels of anxiety, better functioning, and improved sleep. The stretching involved in this therapy releases tightness and pain in the body in the fascia, the connective tissue below human skin.
One small study involving 59 fibromyalgia patients receiving massage-myofascial release therapy showed a clear improvement in symptoms at 20-weeks but the majority of these improvements were not maintained 6 months later.6
Manual manipulation, typically rendered by chiropractors and osteopaths, include the use of a high velocity, low amplitude (HVLA) thrust resulting in a cavitation or “crack” as gas is either released or created from a specific spinal or extremity joint. Another common manual manipulation approach is called “mobilization” where no thrust is used and typically, cavitation is not produced.
Three medium-quality studies report benefits for the fibromyalgia patient but due to small sample size or other research method approaches utilized, limited evidence was reported regarding the benefits of spinal manipulation.7-9
Cranio-sacral therapy rendered primarily by chiropractors, osteopaths, and/or massage therapists (with specific cranio-sacral certification) has been found helpful. A study of 92 women with fibromyalgia that involved 20 weeks of care reported significant improvement, but the gains were not maintained after 1 year.10
Based on the research methods utilized and/or small sample sizes, “inconclusive (favorable)” evidence was reported regarding the use of massage-myofascial release, spinal manipulation, and cranio-sacral therapeutic approaches.
Additional Therapies May Help
As noted above, a wide variety of therapies, including acupuncture and hypnosis, have been employed in an effort to alleviate the symptoms of fibromyalgia. While many fibromyalgia patients may respond to one or both of these treatments, the research has not been conclusive.
The number of fibromyalgia-related symptoms, combined with the tendency of fibromyalgia patients to have various other health issues, makes the condition especially challenging to control. Treatment typically can ameliorate some of the symptoms, but not all.