Thursday, July 8, 2010

Treating Pain: Fibromyalgia

Karen Litton, L.Ac.

Various rheumatology studies have estimated that 3 to 6 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia. That is one in every 50 Americans. Over 80% of sufferers are women over 50 years of age. The prevalence of fibromyalgia is second only to osteoarthritis among rheumatic ailments. The pervasive pain of fibromyalgia is challenging to both the patient and doctor.

Western medicine does not know exactly what causes it. There are no diagnostic tests such as x-rays or blood tests to detect it. The symptoms of it may overlap with the symptoms of other conditions. These are some of the reasons it is difficult to diagnose from a Western standpoint.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by wide-spread muscle pain and stiffness. This pain can be accompanied by fatigue, non-restorative sleep, balance issues, dizziness, and pain that is worse with stress/physical activity/and weather changes, especially cold and damp. Some degree of pain is always present. It can be in the hips, low back, shoulders or legs. The condition can be triggered by emotional stress, medical illness and trauma.

Fibromyalgia is also thought to be associated with a variety of other symptoms such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, dysmenorrhea, and restless leg syndrome. Western medicine treats these conditions with lifestyle modifications, drug therapy and other modalities.

Numerous Western research studies have evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of fibromyalgia. In June of 2006, a Mayo Clinic study found that acupuncture significantly reduced the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Because Chinese medicine takes an individual approach to diagnosis, there are numerous possibilities as to why a person develops this type of pain syndrome.

Chinese medicine does not treat a specific disease known as "fibromyalgia" per se. What it does treat is the unique expression of fibromyalgia that is particular to each individual based on their own signs and symptoms. Through a detailed analysis, your acupuncturist will consider your combined group of symptoms and how they are expressed in the body.

If an individual's sleep and dizziness issues are accompanied by pervasive pain in the muscles and joints of the body, your practitioner will design a treatment plan focusing on the underlying cause of this set of symptoms. Another individual could have an entirely different set of conditions that are combined together.

A Chinese medicine practitioner will evaluate the energy flow in the different meridians where the imbalances are thought to arise, looking for areas of deficiency and stagnation. This energy flow is known as qi, and it flows through meridians, which correspond to a particular organ or a group of organs. Too much, too little or blocked qi can lead to health problems. Thus Chinese medicine will have a different diagnosis for each individual evaluated, with an individual treatment plan for each.

While adjusting the circulation of qi and blood through an acupuncture treatment, your practitioner may also want you to include herbal medicine, as appropriate. Particular herbs can be chosen, which also help to relieve the pain and address your system's imbalances. Other therapies that might be included are heat, massage and cupping. Cupping is a suction technique used on muscles to move the qi or help to release the muscle groups. All of these additional modalities can help to reduce pain.

There are a number of things which you can do on your own to help with the pain in the body. One activity is to walk. Walking moves the qi in our Liver meridian, which is responsible for overall qi flow in our body. Even though the pain may tell us that moving will aggravate the symptoms, generally an even walking pace and a walk outside will do a lot to move our qi stagnation, which ultimately helps relieve some of the pain symptoms.

Your practitioner will also talk with you about changing what is stressing you in your life. Looking at your stress level and determining how to reduce it in your life is important. When we are stressed, we tighten and decrease the circulation of the qi and blood in our bodies. Stress also uses up the body's resources that could be used for healing. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and stretching are therefore helpful.

Specific stretches can help to relieve painful areas of the body.
If your pain is in your shoulders, for example, there is an easy stretch to help keep the shoulders open. Take a rope or a long belt and grasp it in your hands. Act as if you want to pull the rope in two, creating a tension in the rope. Then, with the rope taut, hold your hands in front of your body and slowly raise your arms overhead and back behind your body, continuing to hold the rope in your hands. Make sure that the rope is long enough, so that this is an easy motion to make. Keep your arms completely straight, without bending the elbows. Doing several of these stretches over the head, back behind the body, and to the front again will open up the flow of energy in your arms, thus helping relieve the pain.

In addition, there are a couple of
liniments available at the clinic that can be rubbed into the shoulders or hips or knees to provide some pain relief. Two of these are White Flower Oil and Dit Da ointment.

Another area your practitioner may focus upon is your
diet. You may be asked to fill out a diet sheet. This is an examination of what foods make up your meals. For example, if we eat a diet, which is more acidic (such as tomatoes, sugar, etc.), then this can add to the heat and stagnation in our joints. Eating a more alkaline diet, with more vegetables and other foods, may be suggested.

All of these different modalities can complement each other in achieving relief from this complex illness.