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Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that affects 2-4% of the population of any country with a variety of associated conditions and a complicated diagnosis that involves a process of elimination. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed through a set of criteria laid out by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) and includes an assessment of pain at 19 sites on the body, as well as a symptom severity scale that measures symptoms – such as fatigue, headache, and abdominal pain.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia include pain and tenderness for longer than three months: headache, sore throat, stomach pain, memory problems, fatigue, and sleep problems, along with numbness, burning, and tingling in the arms and legs, and sensitivity to temperature, loud noises, and bright lights. Other conditions associated with fibromyalgia include migraines, tension-type headaches, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), irritable bowel syndrome, depression, waking up tired, pelvic pain disorder, prostatitis, dysmenorrhea, and hypothyroidism.

Research on Fibromyalgia

Li, Wang, Feng, and Sun, published a study establishing evidence that massage therapy over a period greater than five weeks decreases pain, anxiety, and depression in patients with fibromyalgia. They conducted a systematic review of current research and completed a meta-analysis of the evidence of all research they found that was published in English or Chinese.

They reviewed electronic databases such as PubMed, EMBASE, OVID-MEDLINE, SPRINGLINK, CNKI (China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database), Weipu Database for Chinese Technical Periodicals, Wan Fang Data, ProQuest Dissertations, and Theses A&I, and searched using the terms massage, manual therapy, Tuina, fibromyalgia, fibrositis, myofascial pain. Out of 433 relevant publications, six were included in the study, and the rest were excluded due to bias, allocation concealment, blinding, and incomplete outcome data or selective outcome reporting.

The results of this study provide us with an evidence-based treatment option for fibromyalgia: massage therapy.

This review of randomized control trials (RCS) updated a 2006 meta-analysis confirming that massage is a viable treatment for fibromyalgia. Massage therapy decreased pain, anxiety, and depression but did not impact sleep disturbances. While there were no adverse reactions, massage therapy has been shown to help with pain management for those suffering.

A 2020 study demonstrated that gentle manual therapy on the neck muscles for 15 minutes can reduce pain for women with fibromyalgia. This technique could be seen as an option instead of using medications to treat fibromyalgia.

A 2022 review of literature review from 2012-2022 concluded that different manual therapies like myofascial release, connective tissue massage, manual lymphatic drainage, and Shiatsu can help improve the quality of life for fibromyalgia patients. Overall, these massage techniques show positive results.

Family and Caregivers Benefit from Massage Therapy

Stressed man holding his head in his handsOthers who would benefit greatly from massage therapy are the family and caretakers of those with fibromyalgia. People with fibromyalgia suffer greatly from this disease and are not alone in it. Family members of those with fibromyalgia often feel neglected, isolated, and overburdened in coping with and supporting those with the disease.

Children or dependents of those with fibromyalgia feel abandoned, as their sick parents cannot do for them or offer them emotional and physical support.

Marriage partners and significant others, friends, and peers feel frustrated because the fibromyalgia patient is chronically absent. They are physically absent, as the disease limits their movements, and emotionally absent as they withdraw into their own world of pain.

One report stated that a caretaker’s stress is threefold: “situational stress arising from interaction with the ill individual; societal stress arising from negative attitudes and lack of social support; and iatrogenic stress, arising from inadequate or misinformed service providers.” We see here that they must deal with the ill family member, deal with the negative attitudes and lack of social support around the family, and then deal with inadequate medical and support services. This is probably even more accurate for fibromyalgia than other illnesses such as cancer, as there is little understanding and a great deal of skepticism for fibromyalgia patients.

All of this can quickly become overwhelming and even the strongest family members can soon become emotionally and physically taxed by these stresses. Some warning sign and symptoms of caregiver burnout include:

  • Emotional exhaustion – Simply feeling that you lack the energy to engage in any human relationship.
  • Physical exhaustion – Feeling fatigued, lacking energy, motivation, and focus.
  • Depersonalization – Distancing oneself from friends, family and other loved ones. If one isn’t able to ‘fix’ the person they are caring for one might attempt to distance themselves from that person as well.
  • Feelings of hopelessness – It feels that there is no end or improvement in the situation

Studies have demonstrated that massage therapy helps reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate as well as depression with multiple treatments. Additionally, massage has been credited with increasing serotonin and dopamine levels, if not also reducing cortisol. Just as massage therapy has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia patients, it has been can also reduce those symptoms in others, including ill family members.

Family members and close friends may need the proven benefits of massage therapy just as much as the diagnosed patient, as they are dealing with this disease almost as much as the patient themselves. We mustn’t allow the families of fibromyalgia patients to be forgotten. There is a great deal of misunderstanding around fibromyalgia, with patients’ complaints being dismissed by those around them because they do not “look sick.” If patients are being dismissed, imagine how much more so their family members are written off as naïve for believing and catering to their diagnosed family member.

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