Fibromyalgia and Alternative Treatments

Fibromyalgia, a collection of painful symptoms that may be linked with anxiety and depression, is often difficult to diagnose and to treat. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), besides "tender points" throughout the body, symptoms can include stiffness in the morning; difficulty sleeping; headaches; tingling or numbness in hands or feet; and problems with thinking and memory, or "fibro fog."    

The NCCAM says that while researchers are evaluating a variety of complementary health approaches as possible additions to conventional fibromyalgia treatment, patients should still exercise caution when considering "natural" remedies. (The NCCAM also emphasizes that "natural" doesn't equal "safe."

Here, the NCCAM breaks down the latest research on some popular alternative treatments for fibromyalgia:

Tai chi—a practice originating in China that involves moving the body slowly and with awareness—may benefit patients with fibromyalgia. A NCCAM-funded study compared the effects of a tai chi program with a wellness education and stretching program. Researchers found that those who did tai chi showed larger improvements in symptoms such as sleep quality and depression than did those who took the wellness program.  Investigators are conducting a larger followup study. 

Qi gong – another Chinese practice involving physical movement and mental focus – may also relieve fibromyalgia symptoms, the NCCAM says.

Manual lymph drainage therapy, a technique that moves fluid away from areas where lymph nodes are blocked, and connective tissue therapy  may help female fibromyalgia patients to improve their quality of life and increase the "pain pressure threshold" so their tender points are less bothersome.

A review of studies on acupuncture for fibromyalgia concluded that the technique had a small pain-relieving effect. But, the NCCAM cautions, the studies may have been biased.

According to NCCAM, some other remedies need to be studied more before their efficiacy can be determined: balneotherapy (bath therapy) and biofeedback. Other treatments with still-uncertain benefits include capsaicin, SAME-e and soy.

More conclusive, the NCCAM says, is homeopathy research, which has concluded that the treatment hasn't been proven to provide benefits. Reiki showed no benefits for fibromyalgia symptoms, the NCCAM says, and  there isn't enough evidence to determine the effectiveness of chiropractic care, hypnosis, or magnet therapy for fibromyalgia.

f you're considering a complementary practice for fibromyalgia, the NCCAM suggests that you first check with your insurer to see if the treatment is covered, and ask your health care practitioner, or a nearby hospital or medical school, for a recommendation.  In addition, you can find professional organizations for complementary health practitioners by searching the National Library of Medicine’s Directory of Health Organizations Online. Some professions may be represented by more than one organization. Be sure to tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use.

For more information, see NCCAM's Time to Talk campaign.

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