"It would be great if we could just give people a pill to fix their fibromyalgia," says Mark J. Pellegrino, MD, of Ohio Pain and Rehabilitation Specialists and author of 13 books on fibromyalgia. "But there's no magic pill. A balanced approach is important."
For some people with fibromyalgia, that balanced approach includes trying complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in addition to medication, exercise, and physical therapy.
There hasn't been a lot of formal research on the effectiveness of alternative treatments for fibromyalgia. But many people with fibromyalgia and some doctors believe some alternative treatments can help ease pain, fatigue, and other symptoms, especially when combined with conventional approaches.
Here are some of the most popular alternative treatments and their track records.
Dietary Supplements for Fibromyalgia
Supplements commonly used to treat fibromyalgia symptoms Include:
- 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan). This is a building block for the brain chemical serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, so it's believed that raising serotonin levels can lead to a better mood. One study found that 5-HTP supplements may also help ease anxiety, insomnia, fibromyalgia pain, and morning stiffness. In the 1980s, 5-HTP supplements were associated with a serious illness called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). However, it's believed that a contaminant in some products caused those EMS episodes.
- SAMe (S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine). This amino acid derivative may boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, another brain chemical. Limited research suggests SAMe may improve mood and sleep.
- Magnesium. Low levels of this element may be linked to fibromyalgia. However, research has not turned up solid evidence that taking magnesium supplements improves symptoms.
- Melatonin. This hormone is often used in supplements to improve sleep. It may also ease fibromyalgia pain.
- St. John's wort. Though this herb is sometimes used to treat certain fibromyalgia symptoms, there's no solid evidence that it works. A few studies suggest it may help with mild depression. But it can also limit the effectiveness of some medications.
Pellegrino, who has fibromyalgia and is a physician speaker for pharmaceutical companies that make medications used to treat fibromyalgia, considers the "three pillars of treatment" to be medicine, physical therapy, and supplements. He says that some supplements, along with other treatments and lifestyle changes, have helped his patients experience less pain, more energy, and better sleep.
The idea behind using supplements is to boost levels of certain substances in your body that may reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia. "If there's a deficiency you can measure," says Pellegrino, "it makes sense to replace that deficiency."
Supplements and Fibromyalgia: Proceed With Caution
If you are considering supplements, talk with your doctor. Some supplements can have harmful interactions with prescription medications. Some are unsafe if you have certain medical conditions. Pellegrino also advises being wary of products that promise fibromyalgia relief or contain supplements not commonly used.
"When it comes to supplements, we're learning more and more," he tells WebMD. "But unlike drugs, we don't have rigorous research. It's important for a person with fibromyalgia to work with a doctor who is knowledgeable about supplements."
Acupuncture to Ease Fibromyalgia Pain
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture was thought to rebalance the flow of energy through one's body. For modern Western practitioners, it's a healing method that increases blood flow and production of the body's natural painkillers.
In its most common form, acupuncture involves stimulating points on the body by inserting thin needles into the skin. When a slight electric current is run through the needles, it's known as electroacupuncture. Both methods are used for fibromyalgia.
Some people believe acupuncture is an effective, if temporary, treatment for fibromyalgia symptoms. Others are not so sure.
In a 2006 Mayo Clinic study, acupuncture appeared to significantly reduce fatigue and anxiety among people with fibromyalgia. Other studies have suggested that acupuncture can temporarily ease fibromyalgia pain as well. Yet researchers who analyzed several clinical trials, including the Mayo Clinic study, concluded that overall, acupuncture is not effective in treating fibromyalgia.
Trying it yourself may be the only way to find out if it works for you. It may take several acupuncture treatments for you to conclude whether its benefits, if any, are worth the money.
Alternative Fibromyalgia Treatments: Massage
Massage can reduce muscle tension and ease pain in the muscles and soft tissue. It can also improve circulation and range of motion and boost production of natural painkillers. Some studies suggest it can improve your mood. And it may help people with fibromyalgia sleep better, too.
Formal studies of the effects of massage on fibromyalgia symptoms are few and results are mixed. However, researchers at the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute report that just 20 minutes of moderate-pressure massage can lessen the flow of chemicals associated with pain and stress while increasing production of serotonin.
The result: a better night's sleep. That can help combat fatigue and the inability to concentrate known as "fibro fog."
Fibromyalgia Treatments at Home
Don't forget simple and inexpensive home remedies for pain. For example, heat -- especially moist heat -- can temporarily ease pain and stiffness by boosting blood flow to the places where you hurt.
Try applying a moist heating pad, taking a warm shower, or just warming your clothes in the dryer before you put them on. Cold packs can help you feel better too, by reducing the deep muscle pain of fibromyalgia.
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