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Posted Apr 09 2009 7:16pm

Alternative Treatments for Fibromyalgia

How well do they work?

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

To get relief from fibromyalgia pain, more and more people are trying alternative treatments. It's often instinctive -- putting an icepack on a painful spot or reaching for the heating pad when muscles hurt. Or it feels good – like a massage. Even acupuncture is becoming a mainstream pain treatment, with endorsements from the NIH and the World Health Organization.

Now, researchers are honing in on how these various home remedies and alternative treatments work.

"In all these therapies, we're stimulating pressure points... we think there may be a similar underlying mechanism in how they work," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Pressure applied to the right spot triggers all sorts of changes in the body -- in a good way, she explains. The pressure points have nerve connections to major nerves in the body that affects physiological processes.”

This reduces flow of stress hormones and pain-inducing chemicals -- and ramps up production of mood-related brain chemicals such as serotonin, she says. The result: The body slows down, you feel calmer, sleep is more restful -- and you are able to tolerate the pain of fibromyalgia better.

Massage and Fibromyalgia Treatment

For the past three decades, Field has conducted more than 80 studies looking at massage's effects on various conditions. Her research team looks deeply at the underlying physiological processes involved in sleep -- especially as it relates to fibromyalgiapain.

Researchers tracked patients' sleep patterns, also measuring "substance P," a brain chemical that is central to fibromyalgia pain. People with fibromyalgia pain have higher levels of substance P in the spinal fluid. They also have lower than normal levels of mood-boosting serotonin.

When they get a massage, all that changes. Field's studies have shown less substance P in patients' saliva -- and they report less pain. They also have fewer painful tender points.

The studies typically involve 20-minute massages -- which is only practical if a significant other is trained to do it, she says. One bonus for the family masseuse: People who give massages have lower stress hormone levels, too.

To get the most benefit, it's important to apply moderate pressure. "It doesn't matter whether you're rubbing, kneading, or stroking -- it's the pressure that makes the difference," Field says. "You have to move the skin, actually see finger indentations in the skin. It doesn't hurt, but it's more than light stroking. We've found that light stroking doesn't help."

Massage also helps relieve depression, Field adds. "Depression is related to low serotonin, low dopamine, and increased cortisol. We can jazz that up with massage. There are a lot of positive benefits from massage."

Acupuncture and Fibromyalgia Treatment

Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese treatment, also helps ease fibromyalgia symptoms. Acupuncture works on brain chemicals to decrease anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress, and pain.

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