Fibromyalgia is more commonly diagnosed today than ever before. In the past, it was used only as a diagnosis of exclusion, which is doctor-speak for “we don’t really know why you’re sick but this is the best explanation we have for your symptoms.” Fibromyalgia is not considered a disease; we call it a “syndrome,” but by any name it can be life-altering for those who suffer from it. Fortunately, we have a better system today for defining fibromyalgia than was available in the past. While the picture can be quite varied, there is a classical constellation of symptoms that always exists, and which can now be used to more clearly diagnose this very debilitating illness. Severe muscle pain is the dominant feature, which presents in a consistent very specific pattern. Fatigue, chest pain and insomnia are the next most common symptoms; it may also present as another illness with fever, swollen glands and abdominal pain. Fibromyalgia patients often have concurrent diagnoses such as irritable bowel syndrome, depression or chronic fatigue syndrome, and women are more often affected than men.

The causes of fibromyalgia can be multi-factorial – it is essentially an energy crisis within the body, triggered by a sudden or chronic stressor, infection or injury. The body perceives an overload and effectively blows a fuse to protect the rest of the system. When the muscles don’t get enough energy (because the body is unable to process energy properly), the muscles become shortened, causing the classic pain seen in this syndrome.

Treatment for fibromyalgia has come a long way in the past few years. Some studies show that fibromyalgia patients have deficiencies of magnesium in their red blood cells, and other vitamin and enzyme deficiencies are common as well. This research has resulted in the development of targeted nutrient and botanical therapies that reduce inflammation, and in combination with lifestyle changes, can result in significant recovery for many fibromyalgia patients.

Patients who suffer from fibromyalgia can begin the path to recovery by starting out slowly, adding very low intensity exercise on a regular basis as it is tolerated. Too much exercise can cause a flare up for an ill patient! Rotating foods in the diet can be helpful, especially for those with undiagnosed food sensitivities. In a rotation diet, a single food (which may be eaten 2 days in a row) is not repeated in the diet again for at least 3 days. Stress reduction is also an important feature in recovery.

Sleep, proper nutrition and very low intensity exercise is crucial for these folks. Improving sleep function, maximizing nutrition and designing an appropriate exercise regimen is a priority in any treatment plan for fibromyalgia. Hormone imbalances are also common problems and these need to be diagnosed and treated properly. Recovery can take six weeks to two years, depending on the severity of the case. If you or someone close to you is suffering from fibromyalgia, know that there is hope and recovery is possible.

If you would like more information about fibromyalgia, feel free to call or e-mail and we’ll be happy to provide you with resources.

Dr. Ellen Sauter is a naturopathic physician practicing general family medicine at The Benchmark Clinic of Integrative Medicine in NW Portland. She treats patients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and can be reached at 503-223-7067.