Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and multiple tender points. “Tender points” refers to tenderness that occurs in precise, localized areas, particularly in the neck, spine, shoulders, and hips. People with this syndrome may also experience sleep disturbances, morning stiffness, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression and other symptoms which tend to wax and wane over time.
How Many People Have Fibromyalgia?
According to the American College of Rheumatology, Fibromyalgia affects 3 to 6 million Americans. It primarily occurs in women of childbearing age, but children, the elderly, and men can also be affected.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Although the cause of Fibromyalgia is unknown, researchers have several theories about causes or triggers of the disorder.
Some scientists believe that the syndrome may be caused by an injury or trauma. This injury may affect the central nervous system causing a dysfunction of neuroendocrine or neurotransmitter regulation. Therefore, the FM patient experiences an increase in pain due to abnormal sensory processing in the central nervous system.
There are some suggestions that it may be associated with changes in muscle metabolism, such as decreased blood flow, which cause fatigue and decreased strength. Others believe the syndrome may be triggered by an infectious agent such as a virus in susceptible people. The virus then becomes a lingering pathogen which causes the FM patient to chronically feel fatigued and achy—as if they are fighting an infection. Recent studies show that abnormally low levels of the hormone cortisol may be associated with Fibromyalgia. Researchers are studying regulation of the function of the adrenal gland (which makes cortisol) in Fibromyalgia. People whose bodies make inadequate amounts of cortisol experience many of the same symptoms as people with Fibromyalgia.
How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed in Conventional Western Medicine?
A diagnosis of Fibromyalgia is based on a history of chronic widespread pain in all four quadrants of the body for a minimum of three months. The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) has developed criteria for Fibromyalgia that can be used in diagnosing the disorder. According to ACR criteria, a person is considered to have Fibromyalgia if she or he has widespread pain in combination with tenderness in at least 11 of 18 specific tender point sites.
Acupuncture and Fibromyalgia
Currently, modern medicine has very few options for the FM patient. NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as Tylenol or Advil), muscle relaxants and anti-depressants can be prescribed but they often are minimally effective for FM sufferers and have potential side-effects.
Acupuncture has been determined by the World Health Organization to be effective in the treatment of chronic pain and has listed Fibromyalgia as one of 40 different conditions effectively treated by acupuncture.
Because Chinese medicine works on a system of diagnoses based on your individual signs and symptoms there are several ways to treat Fibromyalgia. Unlike Western medicine, each Fibromyalgia patient is treated differently. This means that one person who suffers from insomnia and depression receives a different treatment than someone with irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety. This is because Chinese medicine has a number of diagnoses by which it can treat Fibromyalgia.
There are five Chinese medical diagnoses under which FM patients fall. These five diagnoses are based on specific groups of symptoms (such as the example above). Within each of these five diagnoses, treatment is further tailored to focus on the main concern a patient has. This allows acupuncture treatments to treat each case of FM on a very individual and personal level. This focus on individual symptoms is what allows acupuncture to help FM patients where traditional medicine cannot. Each person’s needs are specifically addressed.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese herbs are commonly used in conjunction with acupuncture treatments. This is because herbal treatments reinforce the affects of acupuncture on a biochemical and energetic level. Herbal formulas, like acupuncture treatments are individually tailored to a patient’s specific constellation of symptoms. This means that the 5 to 12 individual herbs combined in one formula address each aspect of a patient’s condition.
Addressing the Roots of Fibromyalgia
Chinese medicine takes into account your entire physical and medical history. On your first visit, your acupuncturist will do a full medical and physical evaluation, including a discussion of your nutrition and life-style habits as well as your emotional health. The reason for such an in-depth examination is so that your acupuncturist can determine the root cause of the problem according to a Chinese diagnosis.
Once a diagnosis is reached, you and your acupuncturist can discuss ways that you can help yourself in the time between treatments and for your future self-care. From our own clinical experience, we have found there are several key components that contribute to the FM patient’s optimal health, all of which can be addressed during the course of your treatment:
- Creating a proper nutrition and diet regimen
- Determining an appropriate exercise routine
- Examining and treating any underlying emotional causes
These components allow patients to take charge of their condition, empowering them to know intimately their own signs and symptoms and the factors that contribute to them. With these tools and a regular course of acupuncture treatments with herbal therapy, the Fibromyalgia patient can find him or herself living with less pain and with greater ease.