Do you feel exhausted all the time, have trouble sleeping, and struggle with memory and mood issues? You might be suffering from fibromyalgia.
“Fibromyalgia” is derived from the New Latin words “fibro,” which means connective tissue, “myo,” which means muscle, and “algos,” which means pain.
For a very long time, fibromyalgia has been gravely misunderstood, not only by the general public but even by medical professionals. It’s a complex and painful condition that can be difficult to live with. In this post, we’ve gathered 14 of our best tips for coping with fibromyalgia.
What is fibromyalgia?
It’s no exaggeration to call fibromyalgia a waking nightmare. Much like migraines and many other types of chronic pain disorders, fibromyalgia is an invisible illness with symptoms that aren’t immediately obvious to the casual observer. What makes it so confusing is that fibromyalgia has many similar symptoms to other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, gout, lupus, Lyme disease, and the list goes on.
Sufferers of the disorder have widespread musculoskeletal pain along with sleep, memory, and mood issues. There are also 9 pairs of symmetrical tender points associated with fibromyalgia. Rather than a deep ache, the sensitive areas seem to lie just under the surface of the skin and are painful when pressed.
Some patients experience electric sensations or numbness, stiffness, and tenderness throughout their body, and others describe a burning, scorching feeling. At times, even a hug or a handshake can cause severe discomfort to a fibromyalgia sufferer.
Aside from the pain, people with fibromyalgia often have trouble sleeping and wake up completely unrefreshed. Their symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, cognitive issues (“fibro fog”), stiffness, IBS, insomnia, and headaches. Women with the condition have unusually painful menstrual periods.
Most of the symptoms are relatively common in the general population and can be described as part and parcel of the human experience, but having fibromyalgia means that you have much more of these symptoms more often and with greater intensity. In severe cases, patients report experiencing them most days, or even every day of their lives.
Is fibromyalgia real?
Fibromyalgia is a very real, chronic, long-term condition.
Unfortunately, people who hear that you’re suffering from the illness tend to react with doubt or skepticism, especially if you’re not a frail old lady in a wheelchair. A common refrain is “but you look fine”. Lady Gaga is a prime example of a fibromyalgia sufferer who looks well in public but struggles with devastating pain in her private life. There’s still a long way to go in terms of public awareness and empathy.
Perhaps a big part of the reason for the debate on the authenticity of fibromyalgia is that it is not a COVID-like virus that you can definitively test positive for. Pain is difficult to measure and quantify, while symptoms like pain, fatigue, brain fog, and sleep disturbances are self-reported and subjective, resulting in many doctors being uncomfortable with making the diagnosis.
What causes fibromyalgia?
Primary fibromyalgia is idiopathic, meaning that there is no known cause. Contrary to conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia does not involve inflammation or joint degeneration. It is believed that people with FM have an abnormal nervous system response. Unusual concentrations of certain chemicals in the brain are thought to alter how the central nervous system interprets pain signals, resulting in unlikely painful sensations.
In some patients, fibromyalgia might be triggered by a traumatic event like a car accident, a severe illness, or even a stressful event. It can also be prompted by surgery or other diseases. This is known as secondary fibromyalgia.
How can fibromyalgia be cured permanently?
Although there is no known cure for fibromyalgia, people can manage their symptoms and significantly improve their quality of life with a combination of medical treatments, some lifestyle adjustments, and alternative therapies.
For many people who have fibromyalgia, some days are better than others. You might be able to function “normally” today, but the pain can slam into you unexpectedly, and tomorrow may find you dealing with excruciating misery.
With the many implications and effects of the condition, what can you do to find relief?
Ways to cope with fibromyalgia
1. Prioritising and pacing
Much like a mobile phone battery, your physical, mental, and emotional energy are finite resources that you need to allocate accordingly. If you have too many “apps” running simultaneously, you find your “battery” quickly drained and unable to perform more important and essential tasks.
It helps to understand your limits and plan your week out in advance. For instance, if you know you have an unavoidable, high-energy obligation such as a work event that falls on a particular day, try to build in slower-paced days before that to prevent burning out.
If you feel absolutely worn out, postpone social engagements until you feel better. Listen to your body and respect its need for rest and recuperation.
2. Stay organised
Lists, journals, or planning apps are your best friend if you tend to suffer from “fibro fog”. Fibro fog is used to describe a fibromyalgia symptom that affects your mental clarity.
You may struggle with impaired memory and cognition while also finding yourself unable to concentrate and retain new information. On bad days, even the ability to hold conversations may feel like it’s beyond you.
Keeping a neat calendar and setting reminders on your phone or smartwatch helps save you mental energy and avoid the stress and panic of trying to remember too many things at once.
3. Go (window) shopping
Low-intensity aerobic exercise is hugely beneficial for people with fibromyalgia and can be considered as one of the best ways to alleviate your symptoms. When you’re in so much pain, it’s perfectly understandable if there are days when you just can’t bring yourself to be active. However, it’s been shown that a sedentary lifestyle increases inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.
Believe it or not, mall walking is a legitimate form of low-intensity exercise that many people enjoy. You get to exercise while also destressing and getting some “me time”. Unlike hiking outdoors, walking in shopping malls means you’re not at the mercy of the elements, especially in Singapore where the sweltering heat and sudden thunderstorms are an issue. The smooth terrains also mean that you’re less likely to get injured or put too much stress on your joints.
If you haven’t exercised in a while, a good rule to follow is to listen to your body and build up the intensity slowly, whether it’s walking at a faster pace or for longer stretches of time.
4. Get a massage
If you’re able to tolerate massages, they can be extremely helpful for deep pain in your joints and muscles. There’s a reason why massages are the method of choice when it comes to relieving stiffness and soreness, as well as lessening sensitivity to pain. Massage therapy is also beneficial in relieving anxiety and improving sleep quality.
Whatever type of massage you opt for, it’s likely that the masseuse will be inexperienced in handling clients with FM. It’s imperative for you to communicate your needs clearly throughout the session. Don’t be afraid to ask the therapist for lighter pressure or to avoid tender areas if you need to.
5. Use foam rollers
Self-myofascial release, or SMR, is a fancy term for performing self-massage using tools like foam rollers to reduce tension in the muscles and increase flexibility.
Fascia refers to the layers of membranes that wrap around every muscle, tendon, organ, and bone in your body. When they become taut and tight, it causes discomfort, stiffness, and pain. Releasing them helps your muscles, to separate, relax, and become more flexible.
SMR has been shown to bring a host of benefits, and not only physical ones. Aside from helping to relax tight muscles, improve range of motion, and reduce sensitivity and pain, it has been shown to improve your mood and mental health!
6. Practice yoga
Yoga helps your mind and body shift out from “stress mode” into a relaxed state. More than just a gentle way to stretch your muscles and loosen up tightness, yoga is a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual practices with the aim to still the mind and restore harmony between the mind and body.
Yoga also helps you with balance and building muscle strength, which is essential for people with FM. The various poses, outfits, and gear can seem complicated and intimidating for beginners, especially if you’re dealing with muscle weakness. Be gentle on yourself and begin with basic breathing techniques.
For beginners, try savasana, or “Corpse Pose”. It entails lying on the floor perfectly relaxed with an empty mind, which is much harder than it looks. After all, the brain is designed to think, so it’s tough to quiet your mind and simply find stillness, even for the most advanced practitioners. If you feel that keeping up with the speed of a physical class is too much for you, there are plenty of online classes and free videos on YouTube that are adapted for people with injuries or any type of pain.
7. Consider acupuncture
An ancient practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture has been proven through randomised controlled trials to improve the quality of life in fibromyalgia patients.
Fine, sterile needles are inserted into specific points along meridian channels which stimulates blood flow and prompts the body to release natural, healing chemicals. Many chronic pain sufferers have found relief by going for regular acupuncture sessions.
You should only receive acupuncture treatment from a qualified TCM Physician (link). Acupuncture is safe and done with new needles that are used only once, which ensures that infections do not happen.
8. Take pain medication
When used occasionally, over-the-counter relievers can be helpful to reduce pain and improve sleep. However, you should avoid self-medicating to treat your symptoms in the long term, especially because many common medicines can cause dangerous side effects and even worsen your pain over time.
In general, there are three groups of medications commonly used to treat fibro pain: painkillers such as paracetamol, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of these to reduce your pain and fatigue.
9. Try physiotherapy
A physiotherapist is an expert at helping people affected by pain and injury to safely restore their mobility and functionality. For patients with FM, it’s important to find a physiotherapist who understands chronic pain.
A good physiotherapist works closely with you to understand your medical history and pain levels to customise a rehabilitation plan that takes into consideration your specific needs.
Using a combination of treatments such as manual techniques, focused exercises, dry needling, and radiofrequency treatments, they help you to accelerate improvements in your strength and mobility.
10. Nourish your body
Whether you have fibromyalgia or not, a balanced diet is extremely important. There is no specific “fibromyalgia diet”, but people find that certain foods leave them feeling worse or even more worn out.
This is especially true for sugary treats which are instantly gratifying and comforting but might be the cause of your mid-afternoon drops in energy. When your blood sugar increases too much after eating, it triggers your body to release plenty of insulin, causing your blood sugar to nosedive. This is known as a “sugar crash”. You then feel hungry, weak, fatigued, and dizzy, causing you to consume more sugary snacks.
To avoid such unwanted effects, stick to eating a good balance of lean proteins, whole grains, and a variety of vegetables for your main meals. This helps maintain your energy levels throughout the day while providing your body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs to function at its best.
11. Go on a Netflix binge (occasionally)
Watch a comedy or finish a series over the weekend. This releases dopamine in the brain and helps you to relax and relieve stress. Your mind can take a break from your everyday worries and stressors while also distracting you from any discomfort you’re feeling. It’s also a great way to spend some time with friends and family if you’re so inclined.
As with most things, just be sure not to overdo it. Long hours spent on the couch can worsen your pain from FM. It’s not good for your blood circulation and may worsen tightness and pain in your body.
You can combat this by doing simple exercise moves while watching your favourite shows. Simply marching on the spot goes a long way! Thanks to the pandemic, people all over the globe have gotten creative with getting their steps in. It’s possible to get your 10,000 steps in by walking in place in front of the TV.
12. Join a support group
Pain can be a lonely experience, especially if the severity of your pain means that you have trouble leaving your home. Friends and family may sympathise to an extent, but nobody would be able to identify with and truly understand your experiences like another person dealing with similar symptoms and struggles.
Joining a support group not only gives you emotional support and encouragement, but it’s also a great place to learn more about dealing with your illness and discover new ways to cope.
Just be cautious and do your own research on any advice you receive, lest you fall victim to online scammers or well-meaning but misinformed people.
13. Get quality sleep
Inadequate sleep has been shown to cause widespread pain throughout the body. In fact, fibromyalgia and poor sleep are inextricably linked.
People suffering from chronic illnesses can find themselves caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of pain, insomnia, and depression. For instance, someone with pain may have trouble falling asleep – they then wake up feeling unrefreshed, which affects their mood and increases their pain sensitivity during the day. The cycle continues the next night, and the next.
It’s important for people with FM to practice good sleep hygiene to help them shut down for the night and get the rest they need. Click here for tips to best insomnia and fall asleep quickly every night.
14. See a pain specialist
When it comes to the accurate diagnosis and treatment of fibromyalgia, there is no one more qualified than a pain specialist. A pain specialist cares for patients suffering from all types of pain, whether they are acute injuries, chronic conditions, cancer, or other complicated pain issues.
The different methods in this article can provide a fibromyalgia sufferer with relief to varying degrees. However, only a pain management doctor possesses the skills, knowledge, and training to find the root cause of your pain and achieve significant long-lasting results.
For those suffering from pain, the long-term alleviation of their agony is nothing short of priceless. After all, pain touches almost every aspect of a person’s life and affects them physically, emotionally, and mentally.
At Singapore Paincare, we’ve been administering pain treatments since 2007, helping our patients live fruitful lives free from pain. Led by Dr. Bernard Lee and his team of pain specialists, paincare doctors, surgeons, TCM physicians, physiotherapists and psychologists, Singapore Paincare provides truly integrated and comprehensive paincare solutions.
Click here to complete a pain questionnaire to better understand your condition.