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Fighting Fibromyalgia with Exercise

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Rhonda was getting desperate. For almost five years now, she’d been experiencing constant pain all over her body. She couldn’t sleep at night and had no energy for anything during the day. But despite her symptoms, no doctor could find anything wrong. They either referred her to another doctor or told her it was “all in her head.” But the pain felt so real! It was bad enough, she’d even had to quit her job. Today she was trying her fourteenth doctor, but this one was different. She mentioned something Rhonda hadn’t heard before – fibromyalgia syndrome.

As defined by the National Fibromyalgia Association, fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is “a common and complex chronic pain disorder that affects people physically, mentally, and socially.” Little is known about FMS, and it’s a commonly misunderstood condition, both in and out of the medical community. It’s not a disease, but rather a collection of symptoms that seemingly have no physical cause. These include extreme fatigue, widespread pain (on both sides of the body, above and below the waist), hypersensitive “tender points,” and psychological distress.

There’s no known cause for fibromyalgia syndrome (although genetics, stress, and other disease processes may play a part), and neither is there a cure. Because of this, many people diagnosed with FMS feel depressed and helpless. They wonder if they’ll hurt like this for the rest of their life. But having FMS doesn’t mean that your life is as good as over. Once you learn to manage your symptoms, your quality of life will improve dramatically. With a little work, education, and courage, you can control your FMS rather than letting it controlling you.

The most important aspect of dealing with fibromyalgia syndrome is finding a physician experienced in dealing with FMS. They may recommend a treatment program of stress management, lifestyle changes, pain medications, and exercise. Of all these adjustments, exercise may seem the most impossible. With hardly enough energy to brush your teeth, how could you possibly exercise? Believe it or not, you can! Just be flexible. Some days you’ll be able to do more than others. Listen to your body – if it tells you to stop, then stop.

Because one of the hallmarks of fibromyalgia syndrome is stiff joints and muscles, stretching is key in managing the symptoms of FMS. Stretching should be done at least once daily. Slow, steady movements are important, and stretch only to the point of gentle tightness (going further risks injury). Beginners should hold each stretch for 15 seconds; more advanced stretchers should aim for 60 seconds. See your physical therapist for help in designing a stretching program.

One stretching exercise that many with FMS find extremely effective is to undulate their spine: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles inward, pushing your pelvis forward and up. Continue contracting upwards, pulling your shoulders and chin forwards. Then release your abs, starting with your pelvis, and slowly work your way up until you are in your normal sitting position. Repeat as often and for as long as you like, but as with all other exercise, listen to your body and don’t overdo it.

Done correctly, low-impact, light-intensity cardiovascular exercise will give you increased strength, endurance, mobility, and energy. Walking, water aerobics, and riding a stationary bike are all excellent choices. The goal is to accomplish 30 minutes of cardio everyday, but you must work your way up to that. Start with whatever you can do (even 5 minutes is beneficial) and increase over time. You can also break the 30 minutes into two 15 minute sessions or three 10 minute sessions. And even though cardio exercise should be challenging, slow down or stop if your body needs it.

You don’t have to be a prisoner of fibromyalgia syndrome. Fight back by following the instructions of your physical therapist and doctor and by getting plenty of the right types of exercise.

Looking for more information? Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Fibromyalgia Assessment today!