What does it feel like to live with fibromyalgia? “Imagine last night you drank more wine than you should have but had no water or food. You went to bed late and got up early, feeling stiff, achy, and tired,” says Chanchal Cabrera, a British herbalist, fibromyalgia patient, and author of Fibromyalgia: A Journey Toward Healing. People with fibromyalgia feel that way all the time, she says.
A truly mysterious ailment, fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) involves chronic widespread muscle pain and fatigue. It affects about 2 percent of all Americans and accounts for 10 to 30 percent of all rheumatology consultations. FMS mainly afflicts people between the ages of 35 and 55 and occurs seven to 10 times more frequently in women.
And as if the pain and fatigue weren’t enough, a constellation of other symptoms often accompanies the disorder—foggy thinking, sleep disturbances, painful menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea), and irritable bowel symptoms—making a clear diagnosis difficult. Although the cause of FMS continues to elude researchers, certain stresses on the body, such as intense exercise, illness, or a traumatic event, appear to intensify symptoms or even bring on the condition itself.
“My fibromyalgia was triggered by a car accident in 1991, when I was a healthy and fit 28-year-old,” says Cabrera, now 43 and living in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Within minutes of the impact, my neck and shoulders were in pain, and I had a dull headache. My slow descent into fibromyalgia had begun.”
The Body Blows a Fuse
Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of Maryland’s Annapolis Center for Effective Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Fibromyalgia Therapies, likens FMS to the body’s “blowing a fuse” when its energy account becomes overdrawn. This short circuit results in hypothalamus suppression, Teitelbaum maintains. “The hypothalamus controls sleep, hormonal function, temperature, and autonomic functions such as blood pressure and blood flow,” he says. “The hypothalamus uses more energy for its size than any other organ, so when there is an energy shortfall, it goes offline first.”
“FMS has no single cause,” Teitelbaum says. He surmises that the hypothalamus decreases its protective function in the face of what it perceives as overwhelming stress, which can stem from infection, injury, or a stressful, emotional incident. “FMS patients seem to have genetic differences in the way their hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal regulation handle stress,” he says. “As a result, the muscles end up short of energy and in pain.”
Is There Hope?
Mary Shomon, now an author and patient advocate in Washington, DC, began to have symptoms of FMS at age 34, after two car accidents and numerous other health challenges. Through a holistic approach and alternative therapies, she finally found relief from her symptoms. However, 11 years later she still expresses dismay about the stigma and disbelief she encounters about fibromyalgia—particularly from the conventional medical community.
“Those of us who have suffered through it know firsthand that it is a very real condition,” Shomon says. “We didn’t dream it up or develop some psychosomatic syndrome, and we can’t just think it away, buck up, and feel better, or just ‘get over it’ by sheer determination. Some doctors—and even some of our families and friends—think that fibromyalgia is psychosomatic, evidence of laziness, or is due to some inherent emotional or character weakness.”
Conventional medicine has little to offer in the way of treatment, which frustrates patients and doctors alike. Mainstream physicians see FMS largely as an incurable condition (if they see it as a condition at all), so they focus on relieving pain and improving sleep—primarily with pharmaceuticals. Although both conventional and alternative healthcare providers may suggest exercise programs to improve muscle and cardiovascular fitness, along with relaxation techniques to ease muscle tension and anxiety, drugs remain at the forefront of conventional medicine’s arsenal.
Conventional practitioners often recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen for pain, and tricyclic antidepressants to improve sleep and mood. These drugs improve the symptoms to a certain extent but do not halt the disease. And they come with a hefty price: NSAIDs cause bleeding in the stomach lining and may affect kidney and liver function, particularly when taken long-term. Antidepressants carry a host of potential side effects, including anxiety, nausea, weight gain, and constipation. And, at the end of the day, they don’t alleviate the disease or provide any hope for long-term relief. In contrast, a new breed of alternative practitioners, including Teitelbaum, thinks that FMS can be cured. They aim to get at the core issues and turn the disease around with alternative therapies. Continue reading on next page…