Fibromyalgia pain can be debilitating, and what provides relief for one patient may not work for another. “It’s particularly hard to predict success when you’re trying alternative or drug-free ways of treating fibromyalgia symptoms,” says Christopher Camilleri, DO, of Holtorf Medical Group in Foster City, Calif. However, he says, non-drug fibromyalgia treatments generally are safe and won’t cause further harm. So they may be worth trying, as 90 percent of fibromyalgia patients have at some time. Here are eight non-drug fibromyalgia treatments to consider.
Practitioners of aromatherapy — applying fragrant herbs or oils to the skin or inhaling them — believe it can promote sleep, decrease muscle pain, improve circulation, and calm the mind. It may help fibromyalgia muscle pain and sleep problems. “Some patients can see improvement with aromatherapy,” Dr. Camilleri says. Some people with fibromyalgia are overly sensitive to smells. They are precisely the patients who may get the most benefit from aromatherapy — or it could cause their fibromyalgia symptoms to worsen. “I’d say approach it carefully and gently,” he says.
“Acupuncture is not a slam-dunk fibromyalgia treatment, but very much worth trying,” Camilleri says. Acupuncture, which can increase blood flow to areas that are inflamed, holds the most promise for the fibromyalgia symptoms of stiffness or tension headaches. If you opt for acupuncture, it’s important that you go to an experienced practitioner, Camilleri notes. While studies show that acupuncture can relieve fibromyalgia pain, the relief may not be too long-lasting.
Yoga is an exercise and a stress reliever in one. “Yoga moves involve stretching, and stretching can improve circulation and decrease inflammation,” Camilleri says. Fibromyalgia patients often will benefit from the meditative aspect of yoga as much as the physical. Yoga is a great antidote to stress, which can exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms. Says Camilleri, “Yoga is one of my favorite alternative fibromyalgia treatments to suggest to patients.”
Massage is another good drug-free approach to fibromyalgia treatment. Several scientific studies confirm that massage can be an effective pain management therapy. However, Camilleri warns, people with fibromyalgia may find it painful as their muscle tissue is very sensitive. If you opt for massage therapy, look for a therapist who is experienced in treating patients with fibromyalgia and who know to use very light pressure. “If it’s done correctly, it can be very helpful,” Camilleri says.
Most evidence on the benefits of biofeedback for fibromyalgia symptoms is anecdotal. “I’ve had a couple of patients tell me that biofeedback was very helpful,” Camilleri says. Biofeedback is a mind-body treatment. A biofeedback machine uses lights and beeps to get you to recognize your body’s reactions to stress, such as rapid heartbeat, joint pain, and heavy breathing, and thus control and lessen them. Biofeedback seems most promising for people who may be depressed from their fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, Camilleri says.
People with fibromyalgia often have low levels of melatonin, which the pineal gland releases so you’re ready for sleep. “Sleep is important for everybody and for fibromyalgia patients in particular,” Camilleri says. “Their muscle pain stops them from having good-quality deep sleep, which is how the body recuperates and muscles repair themselves.” A study in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology found that taking melatonin helped reduce fibromyalgia pain and improve sleep in some people. Melatonin tablets vary in strength, but Camilleri advises starting with 2- to 10-milligram tablets that you put under your tongue.
7. Vitamin D
“I recommend that virtually everybody, not just my fibromyalgia patients, take vitamin D,” Camilleri says. “Vitamin D can help with muscle pain.” It’s not a miracle cure, Camilleri adds, but some studies have shown that it is an effective fibromyalgia treatment. Take it with food for better absorption. Government guidelines recommend 200 to 400 international units (IU) per day, but Camilleri says it’s safe to take up to 5000 IU per day. You also can get vitamin D from exposure to the sun, so you may want to adjust your dose for summer and winter.
8. Tai Chi
Tai chi is a mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. It combines relaxation, breathing techniques, and graceful movements in a state of calmness and meditation. “A recent study comparing standard fibromyalgia care to the use of classic Yang-style tai chi showed a significant improvement in quality of life and control of severity of fibromyalgia symptoms,” says Hernan Castro-Rueda, MD, a rheumatologist at Mission Internal Medical Group in Mission Viejo, Calif. If you're interested in studying tai chi, many health clubs and YMCAs or YWCAs offer classes.