Integrative Care Offers Hope for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Sufferers
May 18, 2023
Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue are complex conditions that can be challenging to treat and often leave patients looking for answers.
“Although fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue are common conditions, they’re misunderstood because in medicine we use labs and imaging to identify the cause of symptoms,” says University Hospitals Connor Whole Health nurse practitioner Jennifer DeMarco, CNP. “Most chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia patients have normal lab and imaging tests. On paper, they look fine, but physically they aren’t.”
Fibromyalgia vs. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Fatigue and chronic pain can be the result of many conditions. A full physical, medical history and labs should be completed to rule out other health problems prior to a fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis.
There are also important differences between the two conditions.
Fibromyalgia’s overwhelming symptom is unexplained chronic and severe bone and muscle pain. The pain can be accompanied by other symptoms. Headaches, unrefreshed sleep, increased anxiety or depression, IBS (constipation, diarrhea, cramping, bloating), food sensitivities, balance problems and unexplained shortness of breath are just some that can develop and increase over time.
Chronic fatigue syndrome’s main symptom is unexplained, overwhelming fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest. Additional symptoms can be similar to those of fibromyalgia, but they’re less pain related and more fatigue related.
Often, the onset of symptoms for both conditions can be related to a stressful or traumatic situation such as a car accident, divorce, loss of a loved one or a significant illness. It appears that the stress triggers an immune response that alters the balance in the body’s nervous system, causing fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue symptoms to begin.
Adding to many patients’ distress is that, without diagnostic evidence of the cause of pain or fatigue, family members, coworkers and friends may not believe their symptoms. This only increases the helplessness that many patients feel.
Treatments and Therapies That Can Help
“As long as patients are committed to the suggestions and resources we provide, most can feel and function better,” says DeMarco. “There is no cure, but steady lifestyle changes, natural supplements and herbs, acupuncture and other therapies can help achieve and maintain the best possible quality of life. There’s help and hope.”
Some strategies that DeMarco shares with her patients include:
Nutrition. Gluten, dairy and sugar are highly inflammatory. Avoiding or significantly reducing those foods can reduce inflammation and ease symptoms. For overall health and to promote body system balance, eat a healthy, whole-foods diet and drink 60+ ounces of water a day. Avoid caffeine after noon to reduce sleep issues. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake.
Stretching and physical activity. Start slowly. Begin with a stretching routine a few days a week. Later, add light weight-bearing exercises. Then add walking or aquatic therapy as tolerated. Find the balance of enough physical activity to build strength and stamina, but not too much which will cause pain and result in symptom setback.
Physical therapy. A personalized routine can promote bone and muscle health, as well as hormone balance. Aquatic therapy is a good alternative for those in too much pain for physical therapy.
Sleep. Adequate sleep can be difficult to achieve because of pain. Natural supplements, sleep medicines and good sleep hygiene can help. Maintain a strict schedule for going to bed and getting up to retrain the brain’s circadian rhythm. Don’t eat three hours before sleep. Bladder retraining may be necessary if you wake several times during the night to use the bathroom.
Stress relief. Mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing relax the body, reducing stress hormone production and inflammation.
Pain medications. Avoid opiates. Over-the-counter or off-label pain medications may be recommended for some patients.
Supplements and herbs. Natural remedies such as herbs and supplements can aid in the support and balance of body systems and can be used to treat and relieve a variety of symptoms. It’s important to choose supplements that are highly bioavailable (easy for the body to absorb and use) and that come from a trusted source. Examples include curcumin (turmeric) which can help reduce inflammation and Traumeel, a topical cream that can be applied to joints and muscles to relieve pain and inflammation. CBD oil may also be effective for some patients.
Acupuncture. The ancient practice uses very fine needles to activate different areas of the body to relieve symptoms. It has been shown to effectively treat such diverse symptoms and conditions as pain, digestive problems, respiratory disorders, anxiety, depression and headaches.
Cognitive behavior therapy. Talk therapy may improve functioning and quality of life.
Resources. Support groups and online Facebook groups can provide encouragement and help patients recognize they’re not alone.
The integrative medicine team at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health deliver specialized, expert care for adults and children, including massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, lifestyle and integrative medicine and mind-body therapy. Learn more about how integrative medicine services can assist you on your path to optimal health.