It affects around 2-5% of the population. (1)
It is under-diagnosed, because of the vagueness of many of the symptoms. For those who do get a correct diagnosis, it can take years.
Fibryomyalgia was originally though of as a rheumatic (joint) condition.
Now, research has shown it is mainly a problem with the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).
Due to the lack of understanding of the condition, there aren’t many treatments that provide good, long term, results.
Currently, the best treatments for fibromyalgia are (2):
- Stress management and relaxation techniques
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Manual and physical therapies
- Certain medications
The Benefits of Exercise for Fibromyalgia
Of the treatments above, exercise is low cost, available to all and has minimal side effects. This makes it an excellent primary management strategy for chronic pain.
Exercise has the potential to improve fibromyalgia. It works by a combination of both specific and non-specific effects.
Some of those effects are:
We don’t know exactly how exercise helps pain. We do know there are probably a few different effects involved.
One of the main ones is descending modulation. This occurs when the brain secretes natural pain relieving chemicals. Commonly known as endorphins, they target different nerve receptors, inhibiting potentially painful messages.
Improved Cellular Energy Production
Suffers of fibromyalgia often report increased fatigue. To make matters worse, many have difficulty getting restful sleep.
Exercise can help increase mitochondrial density (3). Mitochondria are the cellular power plants. They convert glucose into ATP, which cells use to fuel their activity.
In theory, increasing mitochondrial density should improve cellular energy production.
In practice it’s kind of like installing a bigger engine in your car. It has the potential to make it go faster, but everything else need to work well too.
Better Hormonal Balance
Regular exercise improves hormonal balance. It decreases catabolic stress hormones and increases anabolic sex hormones.
This balance is thrown off in people with fibromyalgia.
Better hormone balance leads to a more positive psychological state, improved emotions and healthier physiology.
It’s not hard to see how this could benefit a chronic pain condition like fibromyalgia.
Stimulates the Lymphatic System
Many people are aware that exercise improves blood flow. But, few know that exercise also improves function of the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is the body’s “waste management system”. It has a network of vessels all around the body, like arteries and veins. These vessels remove cellular and immune system “waste” from the local area.
When you are sick, your lymphatic system becomes more active, and you can often feel your lymph nodes.
Of interest to fibromyalgia sufferers, the brain, hormonal and immune systems are connected. One of the ways they communicate during an immune response is via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). (4)
It’s a complex relationship, but the stress hormones can both improve or inhibit immune functions.
With fibromyalgia, one of the mechanisms involved is an overactive SNS.
By stimulating the lymphatic system, we can influence the SNS. However, we have to do it in a way that does not cause a flare up.
How To Exercise With Fibromyalgia
Exercise with fibromyalgia is often challenging for two main reasons:
1. Pain (both during and/or after)
Pain is an obvious barrier to exercise for someone with a chronic pain condition. Sometimes though, you need to endure the early pain to get a bigger benefit in the long term.
To deal with this, research on chronic pain suggests a pacing approach. Pacing means doing a little at a time, within your limits, and increasing that amount at a gradual pace.
A good exercise program for fibromyalgia should have pacing built in. It will also have a “plan B” for those days when you feel terrible, and don’t want to do anything, but know you should.
Fatigue is the second big issue associated with fibromyalgia.
As mentioned, exercise can potentially help reduce fatigue in the long term.
In the short term, focus on pacing during exercise. In pain management terms, pacing is where you work within yourself and gradually increase the amount over time.
Then afterwards, look to enhance your recovery as much as possible to help minimise accumulated fatigue.
If you avoid common exercise mistakes, you can get the benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia whilst minimising flare ups.
What Type of Exercise Is Best?
There are many types of exercise, which can be organised into 4 broad categories: flexibility training, motor control/skill training, cardiovascular/endurance training and strength/power training.
Each of these has potential benefits for sufferers of fibromyalgia, but overall, there is no clear consensus on which is best, so it is safe to say that the best exercise is the type that gets done and is enjoyable, while producing the least negative effects.
Cardiovascular exercise is a great place to start with fibromyalgia. The majority of research looking at exercise for fibromyalgia has studied various forms of cardiovascular exercise.
One of the downsides of cardiovascular exercise is the potential fatigue it creates. That can be minimised with careful planning and paying attention to biofeedback during and after sessions.
This allows appropriate scaling of volume and intensity, as well as an optimal rate of progression.
The beauty of cardiovascular exercise is that there are a variety of ways to perform it.
- Elliptical machines
Remember, always start well within yourself, and progress slowly. It takes patience, but it is the best way to avoid flare ups.
Resistance training offers complementary benefits for fibromyalgia. Increased strength helps to maintain function throughout your life.
Resistance training is also very scalable, making a pacing approach easy to implement.
Recent (2017) research showed that strength training is both safe and effective for people with fibromyalgia.
Strength training is safe and effective in treating people with fibromyalgia, and a significant decrease in sleep disturbances occurs after 8 wks of intervention.
Strength training can be performed at home, with body weight exercises or using home based equipment, in a gym or at a clinic. There are many forms of strength training, but the principles are the same: progressively load the muscles with increasing resistance over time.
Flexibility training is another good option for suffers of fibromyalgia.
It has a myriad of benefits, most relevant to fibromyalgia are decreased stress and increased cellular energy production.
Stretching is requires no equipment and can be performed anywhere, at any time, to varying intensities. This makes it a fantastic intervention for people with limited access to transport or those who live in unsafe environments which prohibits outdoor activity (extreme weather, crime etc).
A good approach, depending on your personal preferences, would be to incorporate a variety of exercise activities. This gives you benefits in multiple areas of health and function, increases enjoyment (variety) and minimises potential overloading issues.
The most important factor, is to apply pacing principles to your chosen activity.
If you do that, with activities that you enjoy, you can’t go wrong. While you may have the occasional flare ups, over the long term, the benefits are much greater.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.