A significant body of research shows that, for people with fibromyalgia, exercise can improve their physical and emotional well-being, prevent the muscle wasting that avoiding activity can bring, and for some even alleviate pain. Fibromyalgia sufferers often become less and less active as the pain takes over, scared to do any kind of movement that could make the pain worse. That starts a vicious, debilitating circle.
"This fear, which is seen to varying degrees among people with fibromyalgia, is a huge obstacle to getting people to be more physically active," says Daniel Rooks, PhD, who studied fibromyalgia as an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and now works with musculoskeletal diseases at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass.
In 2007, Rooks and his colleagues published research showing that walking, strength training, and even stretching can improve physical pain and emotional well-being in fibromyalgia patients.
One patient finds relief through movement
Diana Tolton says her pain, which intensified around age 30, was "excruciating. On a scale of one to 10, I would tell my pain doctor '20.'"
Before fibromyalgia, Tolton, 51, of Tucson, Ariz., was an active woman who loved running and bicycle racing. After the syndrome developed, her day-to-day pain levels became more of a "roller coaster," with unpredictable swells that would pose major speed bumps.
But in the 20 years since the pain began, Tolton has found exercise to be one of the critical tools in managing her neck and shoulder pain.
"Exercise is number 1 for me," explains Tolton. "Mostly it's cardiovascular and then weights. I ride, I jog. Walking, even, as I get older … anything where I'm conditioning the muscles seems to help me."
Good pain versus bad pain
Tolton acknowledges that exercise does cause her pain, but she sees it as "good pain"pain that allows her body to release its own painkillers, endorphins.
"It's easier for me to run than it is for me to do the chores, because the endorphins really help. I can run and get an endorphin hit and feel pain-free for a while. I try to exercise at least four times a week and hopefully more."
The challenge of going it alone
Rooks acknowledges that it can be very hard for a fibromyalgia patient to begin and maintain a routine. He recommends joining a groupideally a group of fibromyalgia sufferersor, if that's not possible, setting small, realistic goals.
Even for a committed exerciser, however, it can be complicated. Tolton supplements her regimen with injections of novocaine into tender points (the particularly painful spots in the muscles) on a regular basis. And on days when her pain is elevated, she adjusts her expectations of what she can achieve.
For tips on how to make exercise part of your treatment regimen, visit our A-Z Health Library.