When fibromyalgia stiffens limbs and makes muscles and joints tender and sore, you may assume pain medication is your only bet.
Fortunately, there’s new evidence that natural solutions – including breathing techniques, exercise and supplements – may assist your treatment of fibromyalgia’s symptoms and reduce stress, a common pain trigger.
The potential for natural treatments is great, says Howard Schubiner, M.D., director of the Mind Body Medicine Center at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich.
Read on to find out which science-backed alternative approaches are best for you.
How it works: Besides lowering stress, yoga helps reduce chronic inflammation, which many researchers believe is a main cause of fibromyalgia-related discomfort.
In fact, women who practice yoga have lower blood levels of cytokine interleukin-6 – a protein causing inflammation that’s also linked to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes – according to a 2010 Ohio State University study.
Danielle Miller, 45, of Lancaster, Pa., tried “every medication on the market” to treat her fibromyalgia pain. When a friend suggested a yoga class, she was reluctant at first but soon became hooked.
The meditation, breathing and stretching exercises increased her flexibility, improved sleep and even eased her irritable bowel syndrome, a disorder often associated with fibromyalgia.
“After 6-8 sessions, I began feeling better,” she says.
How to get started: Look for a yoga instructor experienced with fibromyalgia. (Your physician may be able to refer you.) Start slowly and build to a regular routine you can stick with.
“When I attended classes randomly, I was in more pain,” Miller says.
2. Nutritional supplements
How they work: Supplements can decrease chronic inflammation, which in turn may reduce pain, says Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., research director for Supplement Watch, an organization that evaluates scientific evidence for nutritional supplements.
Anti-inflammatory supplements include grape seed extract, resveratrol (a chemical found in red wine and grape juice), bromelain (an enzyme obtained from pineapples), ginger, turmeric (the yellow spice used in Indian food), boswellia (an herb common in Ayurvedic medicine), decaffeinated green tea and purified fish oil.
How to get started: Supplements can vary in quality, cause stomach upset or interact with medications, so consult your rheumatologist about which brands are best.
Also, check labels for information on purity and strength of active ingredients.
Changing your diet is another way to reduce inflammation. Eat lots of colorful fruits and veggies. Trade refined carbohydrates for moderate amounts of whole grains. Lower consumption of saturated fats and increase the amount of “good fats” (including monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids) you eat with foods such as nuts, avocados, olive oil and fish.
How it works: Acupuncture has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years to relieve pain related to a variety of conditions. New research shows it may also be effective for fibromyalgia.
In a 2009 University of Michigan study, women with the disorder were treated with either acupuncture or a “sham” (fake) version, in which their skin was pricked with a sharp device to simulate acupuncture sensations.
Brain imaging showed that those who received real treatments got more relief from pain-killers with codeine and morphine (opiates).
“We’ve seen a drop in 5-10 points on the pain scale [a 1-10 scale doctors use to assess discomfort levels] from fibromyalgia patients who’ve used acupuncture,” Harris says.
Annette Poizner, a 47-year-old psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada, says acupuncture reduced her discomfort. But those results took a long time, and she warns against looking at the ancient Chinese treatment as a quick fix.
“It’s a gradual recovery, not a 10-session miracle,” she says.
How to get started: Find a licensed practitioner.
Ask your doctor or look online for local clinics.
4. Mindfulness meditation
How it works: Mindfulness – defined as a calm, nonjudgmental focus on the present moment – can be a powerful stress-reduction method. When combined with meditation, it may reduce fibromyalgia pain and other physical complaints, according to a recent University of Basel, Switzerland study.
Researchers found that it helped patients cope better with the anxiety and depression that often go along with the disorder.
When women with fibromyalgia enrolled in an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction, they had significantly more relief from symtoms than those who received only physical or emotional support from loved ones and peers.
A follow-up found they were still benefiting from the mindfulness program three years later. Because high stress levels can trigger or worsen fibromyalgia symptoms, it makes sense that reducing it brings relief, says Schubiner.
“Results depend on how you incorporate these practices into your life,” he says. “If you have a lot of stress at home, for example, you can reduce it with meditation. But you’ll need to address root problems too.”
How to get started: Some hospitals and medical clinics offer mindfulness programs for patients.
5. Breathing exercises
How they work: Deep-breathing exercises have been shown to lower stress, thereby easing symptoms.
Even slowing down breathing can reduce fibromyalgia pain, according to 2010 research at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz.
Patients with fibromyalgia were subjected to moderately painful heat pulses on their palms. When they slowed their breathing rates by 50%, some reported a reduction in pain intensity.
The patients’ attitude was a contributing factor: Those with a positive mindset saw results.
But those who said they felt overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and depression weren’t helped by the breathing exercises.
Researchers suggest that people with fibromyalgia have a stronger connection between pain and emotion.
How to get started: If chronic depression is part of your disorder, talk to your doctor about treatments.
For mindful breathing, Schubiner recommends a daily session in which you take long, slow breaths and pay attention to each one.
“You simply notice each breath, and then let it go,” he says.
Many yoga classes incorporate breathing exercises, and many books and CDs on breathing are available.
How it works: Physical activity is an important fibromyalgia treatment, but don’t dive right in to an intensive exercise program.
“Too much too soon can have a rebound effect, where you’re worse off than before you started,” Harris says. “The key lies in finding the right amount.”
The proper dose is moderate bursts of exercise that add up to 30 minutes a day, 5-7 times a week, according to a 2010 Johns Hopkins University study that found that patients following this regimen had reduced pain and less trouble functioning after 12 weeks.
How to get started: Begin slowly, exercising for as little as three minutes at a time.
Gradually increase activity level to 20-30 minutes a day, recommends Rae Marie Gleason, executive director of the National Fibromyalgia Association.
“Exercising helps you gain some control over your life, something often missing in those with fibromyalgia,” Gleason says.