Fibromyalgia is Real, but PT Can Help

By Brandy Haldiman, Physical Therapy Assistant

In recent years, the health care industry has come to a better understanding of Fibromyalgia. As someone whose family is affected by this disease – my dad has Fibromyalgia – I can attest to how devastating it can be, and the many misconceptions and myths surrounding it.

What is Fibromyalgia?

People suffering from Fibromyalgia experience chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure. Other symptoms may include troubles with memory, sleep problems and feeling tired to a degree that affects normal activities are affected. People often associate the condition with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other types of chronic pain are also frequently present.

While the US National Institutes of Health and the American College of Rheumatology, recognize Fibromyalgia as a disorder, there is no specific diagnostic test. Doctors must first rule out other potential causes for the pain and verify that certain symptoms are present. Fibromyalgia affects an estimated 2-8% of the population, with female affected twice as often as males.

Myths and Misconceptions

Myth: Your Fibromyalgia Symptoms are All in Your Head

Truth: Fibromyalgia is a real medical condition that includes specific medical criteria for diagnosis, and researchers are learning more every day. For example, we now know that a patient’s nervous system processes pain signals differently than those who don’t have the condition.

Myth: The Condition is Rare

Truth: Fibromyalgia is one of the most common types of chronic pain disorders. An estimated five million-plus people in the United States have it.

Myth: You look fine, so there is nothing wrong with you

Truth: When the symptoms come and go, it can be difficult to convince others that there’s something wrong with you. Some may assume that patients fake the problems to get out of work or to lighten the load at home. The best way to alleviate this issue is through education and raising awareness. Try to openly communicate with others about your symptoms and about your pain, and be honest about how you are feeling.

Myth: Exercise makes fibromyalgia worse

Truth: When done properly, exercise can help reduce some symptoms and can improve your overall quality of life. Some patients who feel exercise makes their fibromyalgia worse usually tried to do too much too soon. The key to exercising with fibromyalgia is to start very slowly and gradually increase intensity.

Myth: Nothing can be done for fibromyalgia. Just learn to live with the pain.

Truth: Although there isn’t a cure for fibromyalgia, it can be managed with the right combination of treatments and therapies.

Physical Therapy Can Help

Physical therapy may help ease the symptoms of pain, stiffness, and fatigue. Licensed physical therapists have a background in anatomy and kinesiology, the study of movement, which allows them to develop specific stretching and strengthening programs that can help alleviate your symptoms.

In addition to exercise, physical therapists use any number of techniques to treat symptoms, such as deep tissue massage, ice and heat packs, and modalities. This helps patients use their muscles, stretch for flexibility, and move their joints through range-of-motion exercises.

Therapists can also help them learn how to make sensible decisions about daily activities that will help prevent painful flare-ups. Keeping to a physical therapy program can help alleviate symptoms so patients can focus on making these lifestyle changes rather than on the chronic problems of pain, stiffness, and fatigue.

Treating Fibromyalgia is a challenge for both doctors and patients because every patient is different. What works well for one patient may not work at all for another. Successfully managing symptoms usually requires a combination of medication, exercise, complementary therapies, and lifestyle adjustments. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate all symptoms, it is possible to experience significant improvement and to lead a fulfilling life.