Notoriously difficult to diagnose, fibromyalgia causes very real pain to those affected by it despite remaining a mystery in many other ways. A musculoskeletal disorder, it’s characterized by a lowered pain threshold and extra sensitivity to situations that would cause an unaffected person no pain at all. Fibromyalgia research is constantly looking for emerging therapies that could help a patient reduce their pain. Here’s three of the latest.
Fibromyalgia research tackles causes
Although fibromyalgia affects roughly 2 to 4 percent of the U.S. population (about 9.5 million people), its exact cause remains unknown. Maybe a single cause is so hard to pin down because the development of fibromyalgia has been linked to a number of different factors, some combination of which could be the culprit.
Researchers believe that any of the following may contribute to a person’s risk for developing fibromyalgia:
- Psychological and emotional factors
- Environmental factors
For example, a genetic mutation might make someone more likely to develop the disorder, while others argue that fibromyalgia can be triggered by an infection or sickness. And some experts link the onset of the disorder to physical or emotional trauma, as patients who present with fibromyalgia have often also been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
One thing’s for sure: Fibromyalgia affects more women than men, with nine women diagnosed for every one man. This may be a result of certain reproductive hormones present in women, but nothing can be decisively said as to why women are at a higher risk than men.
Why fibromyalgia hurts
The cause may be unclear, but the pain is easier to explain. Once the condition presents itself, fibromyalgia pain results from an unusually high amount of certain chemicals in the brain that are responsible for triggering pain signals. This is also called a neurochemical imbalance.
At the same time, although we don’t completely understand why, pain receptors in the brain become extra sensitive to pain, causing contact that would otherwise not be uncomfortable to be very painful for a person suffering from fibromyalgia.
These pain symptoms can be accompanied by a range of other problems, including:
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Difficulty remembering things, also called fibro fog
- Stiff joints
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Difficulty swallowing
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Poor bladder control
- TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders
You can find out more about fibromyalgia in the following video.
Unfortunately, there is no chemical test available to directly confirm a person is afflicted with fibromyalgia. Instead, a doctor must use a number of other methods to make a diagnosis.
Initially the doctor will observe the patient’s pain symptoms. According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain endured for a minimum of three months. The term “widespread” means the pain should be present on both sides of the body as well as on both the upper and lower body.
The ACR also describes fibromyalgia as tenderness or pain felt at specific places on the body, including the shoulders, the upper chest, the elbows, the hips and the knees. There are a total of 18 of these specific points listed by the ACR, and a person must experience pain in at least 11 of these for the condition to be considered fibromyalgia.
But the surest way a doctor can determine a patient suffers from fibromyalgia is actually to rule out every other possible condition — a process which can be involved and lengthy. Patients shouldn’t be discouraged at the sometimes long process, however, as it means the doctors and medical staff are being as thorough as possible.
Developing fibromyalgia treatments
Treatment plans for fibromyalgia can be complex. Since there’s no cure for the condition itself, treatment must instead focus on the symptoms, on any coexisting conditions, and on any underlying medical problems that could have triggered or aggravated the fibromyalgia in the first place. We’ll discuss some of these more common treatment plans, before discussing the emerging treatments that fibromyalgia research is focusing on.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen might be recommended to alleviate some discomfort, or the doctor may prescribe something a little stronger, for example, tramadol. In some cases, anti-seizure drugs can be prescribed to effectively reduce fibromyalgia pain symptoms.
The combination of medications a doctor prescribes will ultimately depend on the patient’s exact symptoms, since these are rarely identical from patient to patient. Every person’s case is unique, with different triggers, different levels of pain, and different conditions or symptoms occurring simultaneously. For example, an antidepressant might also be necessary to fight lethargy, or a relaxant may be required to initiate sleep.
Usually doctors will also inform the patient of lifestyle changes he or she can make at home to help with treatment. These include:
- Getting adequate amounts of sleep
- Committing to a regular exercise routine
- Eating a healthy diet
- Limiting intake of caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants
Due to fear of their symptoms and the associated pain and discomfort, people who suffer from fibromyalgia can be inclined to withdraw from society and become inactive. Doctors recommend against this, however, as those patients who remain as active as possible — without overdoing it — on a consistent basis, seem to have the best success with managing their symptoms and leading normal lives.
Many people also benefit from therapy sessions, in which they can not only discuss with a professional counselor the impact fibromyalgia has had on their lives, but also explore strategies for overall stress reduction on a day-to-day basis. This type of training can be crucial for giving patients the confidence to keep living their lives to the fullest potential, without the concern of being limited by their condition.
Emerging treatments based on new fibromyalgia research
Fibromyalgia frequently doesn’t respond well to traditional medications, but the good news is that many people find alternative remedies helpful. Therapies like oxygen chamber therapy, low-level laser therapy, and transdermal magnesium are hitting the market, giving fibromyalgia patients new options for managing pain and improving quality of life.
Oxygen chamber therapy in particular has researchers making grand promises—promises not just of pain relief, but of the possibility to reverse fibromyalgia. The treatment is still early in the study stage. However, researchers understand more about fibromyalgia every day, and this increasingly deep knowledge could one day result in a cure.
1. Oxygen chamber therapy heralds promise to reduce fibromyalgia pain
This treatment, which involves breathing in pure oxygen from a tube or while sitting in a pressurized room—hence the term “chamber”—has shown promise for helping people with fibromyalgia.
Officially known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the treatment been used for some time to help scuba divers heal from decompression sickness, which is when gasses in the blood form bubbles as divers move toward low pressure. The treatment also works for slow-healing wounds related to diabetes or serious infections, according to Mayo Clinic.
Research from Rice University has also found the treatment offers hope for fibromyalgia patients. Scientists evaluated 48 women with fibromyalgia who underwent oxygen chamber therapy for two months and found that 100% of them experienced some form of benefit.
An increasing body of clinical evidence shows that fibromyalgia develops from abnormalities in the nervous system and brain pathways, many of them related to pain processing. Rice researchers found that hyperbaric oxygen therapy enhanced functioning in these faulty areas.
Fibromyalgia affects about five million people, most of them women. Researcher Eshel Ben-Jacob says:
“Symptoms for about 70% of the women who took part have to do with the interpretation of pain in their brains… They’re the ones who showed the most improvement with hyperbaric oxygen treatment. We found significant changes in their brain activity.”
In the study, participants underwent 40 treatments, each lasting 90 minutes, for five days each week over the course of two months. During treatment sessions, patients breathe in oxygen that’s pressurized three times higher than normal air. The highly pressurized nature allows lungs to absorb greater quantities of oxygen, which then gets absorbed systemically by the body.
Fibromyalgia patients receiving oxygen chamber therapy also experienced a dramatic reduction in pain. The body thrives off this pure oxygen and is better able to heal, fight off bacteria, or in the case of fibromyalgia patients, process pain. Many patients who participated in the study were able to decrease the amount of medications they were taking or, in some cases, stop taking pills all together.
Researchers said oxygen chamber therapy actually reversed fibromyalgia, targeting the condition’s source, while all the pills did was ease pain, and not heal the underlying condition. Researcher Shai Efrati says:
“The results are of significant importance since, unlike the current treatments offered for fibromyalgia patients, (oxygen chamber therapy) is not aiming for just symptomatic improvement…(It’s) aiming for the actual cause—the brain pathology responsible for the syndrome. It means that brain repair, including even neuronal regeneration, is possible even for chronic, long-lasting pain syndromes, and we can and should aim for that in any future treatment development.”
These promises aren’t as grandiose as they may seem: Efrati says 70% of the research participants no longer had diagnosable criteria for fibromyalgia at the end of the study.
Oxygen chamber therapy currently has federal approval for use in 14 conditions, including serious infections and burns, but not yet for fibromyalgia, according to WebMD.
Unfortunately, until future studies prove the benefit on a wide scale and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the treatment, insurance plans won’t cover the treatments, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars because so many are needed.
We’ll be sure to keep you up to date as this exciting area of fibromyalgia research develops.
2. Fibromyalgia research focuses on non-invasive low-level light laser therapy
With laser therapy, lasers shoot through soft tissue, and the light of the beam raises the temperature. Data is so far mixed on whether the technology works, but fibromyalgia research does show benefits that are promising. Scientists aren’t sure how the treatment works, but are working to learn more.
One possible theory that explains how low-level light laser therapy works involves a process known as photobiostimulation. This idea holds that when the energy of the laser penetrates the tissue, it creates adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP), which helps produce cellular energy.
Benefits of photobiostimulation include:
- Reduced pain and swelling
- Improved circulation
- Enhanced delivery of life-supporting materials like water, oxygen, and other nutrients
Research results for this therapy have been mixed, but several have shown promise. More research is needed to better quantify the potential for this therapy to treat pain from fibromyalgia.
Other names for low-level laser therapy are cold laser therapy, low-energy laser therapy, low-intensity laser, and monochromatic infrared light energy (MIRE) therapy.
3. Transdermal magnesium shows promise for fibromyalgia pain
Magnesium is an important nutrient for optimal body functioning, however many people don’t ingest enough of mineral. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and anxiety may all be symptoms of a deficiency.
People often take magnesium in pill form, but transdermal magnesium involves applying magnesium directly to the skin. One way of doing this involves rubbing oil directly on the skin, where it can easily be absorbed and distributed throughout the entire body. Another option is to take a bath with Epsom salt, which is magnesium sulfate.
Gels and patches are also available, however rubbing oil on the body and taking baths have relaxation and other therapeutic benefits, and are wonderful ways to receive healthy amounts of magnesium.
Only a few small trials of fibromyalgia research have found transdermal magnesium has a large benefit, but the anecdotal evidence is vast. Plus, with magnesium deficiencies so common, transdermal magnesium is a good health practice to have.
While fibromyalgia research continues to pave the way for new and innovative treatments, patients should first make sure they have an accurate diagnosis. You can work closely with a pain doctor to find out if you have fibromyalgia. They can also help you learn more about complementary and advanced treatments for reducing your pain. Click here to make your appointment today.
What other fibromyalgia research areas are you interested in learning more about?