Yoga a Helpful Treatment for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes significant musculoskeletal pain, along with changes in the ability to sleep, think, and remember.

The name for the disease comes from a combination of Latin and Greek terms, including fibro, or fibrous tissue, myo, meaning muscle, and algia, meaning pain.

Doctors often consider fibromyalgia to be an arthritis-related condition, but it is different from typical arthritic conditions in that, although it causes pain, it does not cause significant damage to muscles or joints.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications to treat fibromyalgia. However, these medications do not cure the condition, so doctors may recommend that people with fibromyalgia look to alternative therapies, such as yoga, to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness.

How might yoga help with fibromyalgia?

Yoga is a practice that incorporates self-care measures, such as relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing. It is a meditative movement practice that involves engaging in a series of coordinated movements while focusing on breathing, relaxation, meditation, or a combination. Similar practices include Tai chi and qi gong.

People doing yoga in the park
Yoga is an ancient Indian meditative movement practice that is used commonly today.

Many different types of yoga exist. Some focus on slow, controlled movements, while others can be as intensive as a hard run:

  • Hatha yoga is the most common type of yoga taught at most American yoga classes
  • Restorative yoga is a low-effort, but rejuvenating practice incorporating assistive devices, such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks
  • Ashtanga yoga is an intense and challenging style that involves practicing a specific series of poses in the same order
  • Bikram yoga involves progressing through 26 poses in a heated room
  • Vinyasa yoga is a continuous, flowing type of yoga that can be physically challenging

Doctors have not defined a specific type of yoga that is best for people with fibromyalgia. Anyone practicing yoga should take into account any personal physical limitations, especially if they plan to engage in intense exercise or want to exercise in hot temperatures.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), while research regarding the effectiveness of yoga in benefitting those with fibromyalgia is “promising,” there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine that yoga can help people who have the disorder.

Several research studies and analyses have been conducted regarding yoga and fibromyalgia:

  • A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, summarized the effects an 8-week course of yoga and meditation had on 11 people with fibromyalgia. Following the study, participants reported significant improvements in the number of days they “felt good” and did not miss work for reasons related to fibromyalgia. However, participants did not report decreased incidences of pain and fatigue.
  • A 2013 analysis of three research studies, published in the Journal of Pain Research, found that yoga helped to reduce sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression while also improving the quality of life. However, the authors noted that there are not enough significant studies to confirm a link between yoga and reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia.
  • A 2010 research study published in the journal Pain studied 53 female fibromyalgia patients who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness program. This program included meditation, breathing exercises, gentle poses, and yoga-based instructions for coping with symptoms. After finishing the program, the participants reported significant improvements in measures of pain, fatigue, and mood associated with fibromyalgia.

Three yoga poses for fibromyalgia

Many yoga poses could potentially benefit a person with fibromyalgia, but some specific poses are recommended in the book Yoga for Fibromyalgia by Shoosh Crotzer. However, before embarking on this type of exercise, it is best to talk to a doctor. All of these poses have variations that people can adopt according to their ability.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana, yoga pose
The Uttanasana pose may be recommended as beneficial to people with fibromyalgia.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana:

The standing forward bend pose involves standing with the feet hip-width apart and bending forward from the hip joints. If possible, people should place their fingertips or palms on the floor. If they cannot stretch this much, they should place their palms on the tops of the thighs or calves instead.

After staying in this position for 30-60 seconds, slowly roll the body up until standing up straight. Anyone with a bad back may prefer to keep their knees bent.

Bridge pose, or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana:

The person starts lying on the floor on their back. Bend the knees, putting both feet on the floor. They should straighten their arms and, if possible, clasp them together as they exhale and lift their tailbone off the floor, tightening the buttocks as they lift. Hold this pose anywhere from 30-60 seconds. They should then exhale as they slowly roll their lower back and spine toward the floor.

To protect the neck and reduce discomfort while lying face-up on the floor, a rolled-up blanket can be placed under the shoulders. Anyone with a history of neck injury should avoid this pose.

Cobra pose, or Bhujangasana:

The cobra pose can stretch tired legs and open up the chest muscles. To perform this pose, people should lie face-down on the floor and put their hands under their shoulders, palms on the floor. Put the elbows back toward the body. Inhale and push into the palms, straightening the arms until the upper body is lifted off the floor. However, people shouldn’t lift their feet or pelvic bone off the floor. Feel the stretch across the chest and in the lower back.

People should hold the position for 15-30 seconds, then release the pose and return to the starting position. Those who have a headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, a back injury, or are pregnant should be cautious with, or avoid this pose.

Practicing these poses daily may enhance a sense of well-being.

Additional health benefits of yoga

Many studies have looked at the overall benefits of yoga in reducing stress and boosting physical and mental health. According to an analysis in Health Psychology Review, participation in yoga appears to reduce the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response in the body. Other psychological benefits can include a more positive affect and increased mindfulness.

What additional approaches may help those with fibromyalgia?

Woman has pain in her neck
A very high percentage of people with fibromyalgia are female.

Tai chi is another movement-related practice that may help to relieve fibromyalgia. Like yoga, Tai chi combines the practices of meditation, slow and controlled movements, and deep breathing.

According to the NCCIH, people with fibromyalgia who participated in hourly Tai chi sessions for 12 weeks found their sleep, mood, and overall quality of life improved.

Additional approaches may include:

  • Acupuncture, a Chinese technique that involves applying needles at various specific points on the body to encourage blood and energy flow through the body. However, there is a lack of conclusive evidence that acupuncture will always benefit people with fibromyalgia.
  • Massage therapy involves using the hands to manipulate muscles and soft tissues, and it can help to relieve stress and anxiety in people with fibromyalgia.
  • Sleep and resting well can benefit a person with fibromyalgia. This includes going to sleep at a regular time and avoiding excessive daytime napping that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
  • Regular exercise can help to decrease pain symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. Moderate exercises, such as swimming, riding a bicycle, engaging in water aerobics, and walking are recommended. Overly strenuous exercise may worsen the pain.

As with most medical conditions, practicing healthy self-care measures, including eating nutritious foods, can help a person live better with fibromyalgia.

Causes, risk factors, and symptoms

The cause of fibromyalgia is not always clear, but it may appear after one of the following events:

  • A physically or emotionally stressful event, such as after an automobile accident or post-traumatic stress
  • An infection or another form of illness
  • A repetitive injury

Researchers believe the repeated nerve stimulation associated with fibromyalgia can affect a person’s brain receptors, causing them to be more sensitive to painful stimulation. Those with fibromyalgia may also have higher levels of neurotransmitters that signal pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 80-90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. Other factors that increase the risk of developing the disorder include a family history of fibromyalgia, or a history of a rheumatic condition, such as lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis.

The main symptom of fibromyalgia is the pain, but people may also experience cramping in the lower abdomen, depression, fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, tingling in the arms and legs, and painful menstruation. Cognitive function may be affected.

Other pain-related conditions that may occur include endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Can Essential Oils Help Treat Fibromyalgia?

Essential oils are concentrated aromatic liquids that are distilled from plants. They are believed to provide a number of health benefits and ease the symptoms of several medical conditions, including fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic musculoskeletal disorder and a class of rheumatic disease, which is believed to affect the way the body processes pain signals. It is marked by pain throughout the body, fatigue, mental fog, depression, cramps, and sleep disturbances.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia affects between 2 and 4 percent of people. Up to 90 percent of people with the condition are women. At present, there is no cure for fibromyalgia. Treatment is based on managing the symptoms.

Essential oils and fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain, fatigue, depression, and other symptoms.

People with fibromyalgia may experience relief from both physical and mental symptoms through the use of essential oils.

In general, research suggests that essential oils offer therapeutic potential in pain relief.

Studies specifically on essential oils for fibromyalgia, other rheumatic conditions, and pain management are limited. However, the following essential oils may help with symptoms of fibromyalgia:

Basil

In one study, basil oil was found to produce painkilling effects on mice with chronic muscle pain. This finding led the researchers to suggest basil oil as a potential method of pain relief for those with fibromyalgia.

Capsicum

This essential oil is extracted from red chilies. It contains capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, which is well-documented as a pain reliever.

In one study, people with severe fibromyalgia applied topical capsaicin three times per day for 6 weeks. The treatment led to significant improvements in terms of pain relief and overall well-being.

It has also been suggested that concentrated capsaicin patches can reduce neuropathic pain for up to 12 weeks.

Cedarwood

Research from 2015 suggests that inhaling cedarwood essential oil alleviates post-surgery pain in mice by influencing the way the body experiences pain.

Clove

A review of research on clove essential oil suggests that it may be a possible method to relieve pain.

The researchers suggest that clove oil may be so effective because it contains eugenol in high concentrations (88.58 percent). Eugenol is commonly used as a local antiseptic and anesthetic.

Ginger and orange

A blend of both ginger and orange oil was tested on older adults with moderate-to-severe knee pain.

Those treated experienced an improvement in physical function and a reduction in pain when compared with those that received a placebo, or no treatment at all. These benefits were still observable at the 1-week follow-up, but not at the 4-week review.

This study indicates an aromatherapy massage using these essential oils can effectively reduce pain in the short term. Be careful when using citrus oils if going out in the sun, as some research has suggested that they may cause sunburn.

Lavender

Recent research found that an aromatherapy massage using lavender oil effectively reduced pain in people with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Pain levels were reduced immediately after the treatment and remained lowered at 1-week post-treatment. However, the pain relief did not last long-term. At the 4 week follow-up, the pain had returned.

Lavender oil was also found to reduce stress and anxiety, and so may be beneficial for those who experience these common fibromyalgia symptoms. It may also aid sleep.

Multiple oil blend

Research that looked at the effects of a commercially available essential oil blend on people with fibromyalgia found that, following 4 weeks of treatment, improvements were experienced in night pain, strength, and tender point pain thresholds.

The oil blend tested comprised white camphor oil, aloe vera oil, eucalyptus oil, lemon oil, orange oil, peppermint oil, and rosemary oil.

How to use essential oils for fibromyalgia

[lavender essential oil]
The essential oil should not be applied directly to the skin without diluting it first. Alternately, it can be inhaled using a diffuser or oil burner.

Essential oils can be used in the following ways:

  • Topically. Do not apply undiluted essential oils directly to the skin. Essential oils must be mixed with a carrier oil. Mix a few drops of an essential oil with 1 ounce of carrier oil (such as coconut oil, sweet almond oil, or olive oil) before applying to the skin. It can also be used as a massage oil. Mixed oils can also be added to bathwater.
  • Inhaled. The oils can be inhaled directly, or placed in an essential oil diffuser or burner.

To ease fibromyalgia and other pain conditions, it is best to use essential oils on a regular basis. Some of the above studies suggest that the beneficial effects of the oils do not endure beyond a few days, so the regular application may help to keep the pain at bay.

Risks and considerations

Although essential oils are considered a natural remedy, they carry some risks. It is important for people to keep the following in mind:

  • Essential oils should not be ingested. Although some people may recommend taking essential oils by mouth, these products are highly concentrated. They can have serious side effects if taken incorrectly in this manner.
  • It is possible to be allergic to essential oils. People should test their chosen essential oil by mixing it with a carrier oil and putting a small amount, about the size of a dime, on their forearm. If there is no reaction, it should be safe to use. Test each new essential oil in the same manner.
  • Look out for unwanted side effects. While these oils have been shown in studies to have beneficial effects, they may have negative effects too. If any undesirable side effects are experienced, people should stop using them and consult a doctor. Risk varies depending on age, health status, and medications.
  • Check for drug interactions. Essential oils can interact with common prescription drugs. Those on medication should consult a doctor before using essential oils, especially if intending to use them on the skin.
  • Always use a carrier oil. Undiluted oils can cause skin irritation, blisters, or rash. Some oils can also increase sensitivity to light, especially citrus oils. People should dilute essential oils with a carrier oil such as almond oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil.
  • Choose a reputable brand. There is considerable variation between essential oils in terms of potency and quality.

Other natural remedies and lifestyle changes

There are several other natural treatments for fibromyalgia that vary in effectiveness from person to person. A combination of treatments tends to work best.

Some natural remedies and lifestyle changes include:

[young woman getting a massage]
Massage therapy can help people with fibromyalgia manage their symptoms.
  • Acupuncture. There is some research to suggest that certain acupuncture therapies can ease symptoms for some people with fibromyalgia.
  • Exercise. Regular gentle exercises such as yoga, walking, swimming, and Pilates may help to decrease pain symptoms and fatigue and improve mood and sleep.
  • Massage. According to the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, regular massage therapy can improve chronic pain and fibromyalgia symptoms. Massage with the essential oils listed above may be particularly beneficial.
  • Sleep. Setting a regular sleep schedule – with the same bedtime and wake time – helps ease fatigue.
  • Stress management. Managing fibromyalgia means reducing both physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Several techniques can help with this, including meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing exercises.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Working with a therapist who practices CBT can help people to develop new coping strategies. It can help people to change thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to better manage pain and other symptoms.

A review of research found that 12 weeks of CBT led to a slight reduction in pain, negative mood, and disability in people of all ages with fibromyalgia. These changes were still experienced 6 months after treatment ended.

When to see a doctor

People should see a doctor if any of the symptoms of fibromyalgia persist, or if symptoms get worse.

Common fibromyalgia symptoms include:

  • depression
  • the difficulty with focus and concentration
  • tiredness
  • headaches
  • muscle spasms
  • nausea
  • widespread pain

Complications associated with fibromyalgia include an impaired ability to function and increased anxiety.

Causes and risk factors

While researchers are not sure of the exact cause of fibromyalgia, the following factors are thought to play a role:

  • Genetics. A family history of fibromyalgia is a risk factor.
  • Inflammation. Inflammation around groups of blood vessels and nerves can cause an over-reactive nervous system.
  • Infection. Certain infections trigger onset.
  • Other disorders. People with other rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or lupus, are at increased risk of fibromyalgia.
  • Psychological distress. Some research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a potential risk factor for fibromyalgia. Trauma and PTSD ignite inflammatory responses in the body that can lead to pain and disease.
  • Physical trauma. A physical injury, such as a car accident or through surgery, can bring on symptoms.
  • Sex. Women are more likely than men to develop fibromyalgia.

Those who are considering using essential oils for fibromyalgia, particularly if taking multiple medications, may wish to speak with their doctor before beginning treatment.

How Can Diet Affect Fibromyalgia Symptoms?

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes a person to experience frequent pain, muscle tenderness, and fatigue.

There is no definitive known cause of fibromyalgia and there is no cure. However, medicines are available that can reduce symptoms and help manage the condition. In addition to these prescription medications, people with fibromyalgia may use complementary therapies and treatments, such as diet management, as a means to reduce painful symptoms.

How might diet impact fibromyalgia?

Fruit and vegetables
An anti-inflammatory diet is recommended for people with fibromyalgia. One example of this is eating a large range of fruits and vegetables daily.

Dietary changes are not part of the standard treatment or treatments for fibromyalgia. However, a nutritious diet can almost always help a person with fibromyalgia live as healthy a life as possible.

The Cleveland Clinic recommend an anti-inflammatory diet for those who experience chronic pain. An anti-inflammatory diet isn’t a specific diet, but rather a set of principles and guidelines regarding food choices.

Examples of anti-inflammatory diet choices include:

  • Eating eight to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Choosing colorful fruits and vegetables whenever possible ensures the greatest range of nutrients. Examples of especially nutrient-packed foods include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage.
  • Choosing whole grains. Refined sugar and simple carbohydrates can have inflammatory properties. Examples of healthier whole grain foods include barley, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, brown rice, rye, wheat, and spelt.
  • Limiting excess dairy intake. While dairy is a source of calcium, having too much in a diet can cause inflammation.
  • Reducing red meat. Red meat should be an occasional food, not an everyday one. Replace red meat with turkey, fish, and vegetarian foods. Boneless, skinless chicken is also a good option, but may not have the anti-inflammatory benefits that some other foods have.

While an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t necessarily a weight-loss diet, it is one that often helps a person maintain a healthy weight, which is of great benefit to those with fibromyalgia.

What foods should a person with fibromyalgia avoid?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, food additives called excitotoxins may worsen fibromyalgia symptoms. Examples of these foods include glutamate, aspartate, and L-cysteine. These are often added to sugar substitutes such as aspartame.

Another food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG), is often added to many Asian and frozen foods. Research hasn’t fully concluded that these additives can make fibromyalgia symptoms worse. However, some people with fibromyalgia have found that they experience less pain when they remove these additives from their diet.

In addition to avoiding additives, some people with fibromyalgia have found relief by avoiding the following foods:

  • Dairy products
  • Gluten-containing foods
  • Refined flour
  • Sugar

While avoiding these isn’t necessarily going to eliminate all symptoms, those with fibromyalgia may benefit from keeping a food journal and commenting on any symptoms they may experience after eating particular foods. If a person identifies patterns between foods they have eaten and painful symptoms, they may consider removing particular foods from their diet.

What foods may help a person with fibromyalgia?

Egg yolk
Vitamin D may help to reduce fibromyalgia symptoms. Egg yolks are a good source of vitamin D.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), taking vitamin D supplements may help to reduce fibromyalgia symptoms in people who are deficient in the vitamin.

Dietary sources of vitamin D can be found in:

  • Egg yolks
  • Low-fat yogurt fortified with vitamin D
  • Orange juice fortified with vitamin D
  • Swordfish
  • Tuna, canned in water
  • Whole grain cereals fortified with vitamin D

Although foods containing vitamin D may not help every person with fibromyalgia, eating them is very beneficial as vitamin D helps build healthier bones.

Supplements

A person with fibromyalgia should also always talk to their doctor before starting to take any supplements, even if they are labeled “natural.”

The NIH caution people that natural health products and even vitamin supplements are not always safe to take. It is possible to take too many vitamins and natural health products. These products can also interfere with any medications a person with fibromyalgia may be taking. For this reason, anybody considering taking supplements or other substances should discuss them with a doctor or pharmacist to ensure that no adverse interactions will take place.

For example, people with fibromyalgia often take antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. These medications include sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), and escitalopram (Lexapro). Alcohol and St. John’s wort is two examples of substances that may interact with SSRIs.

Other lifestyle measures that may help

yoga
Yoga may help people with fibromyalgia to reduce symptoms and fatigue.

While specific dietary measures have not been well-studied regarding those with fibromyalgia, other methods have been proven to help reduce symptoms. One example is aerobic exercise.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, engaging in aerobic exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day for 2 to 3 days per week can help to reduce fibromyalgia symptoms and fatigue in those with fibromyalgia.

In addition to aerobic exercise, the following exercise types may also help those with fibromyalgia:

  • Tai chi
  • Weightlifting
  • Yoga

Getting regular sleep and practicing good sleep habits can help a person manage their fibromyalgia symptoms better. Examples of ways to get a good night’s sleep include:

  • Keeping a regular schedule of sleeping and waking times helps the body to maintain its natural rhythm for sleeping.
  • Adopting a nighttime routine that includes a period of relaxation before bed. Examples could include reading a book, listening to soothing music, or meditating.
  • Maintaining a cool and comfortable sleep environment. Ideally, the room temperature should be 60-67°F. The bedroom should be dark, which gives the brain a visual cue to wind down. If noise is a problem, a person can wear ear plugs or invest in a white noise machine that can help to drown out ambient noise.
  • Reducing exposure to electronics before bed. Examples include avoiding cell phone and computer use. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the light from these devices can stimulate the brain, causing a person to have greater difficulty going to sleep.

In addition to these measures, taking steps to reduce stress also may help relieve fibromyalgia. Examples of these practices may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation training
  • Counseling or therapy

Seeking out a fibromyalgia support group may also be an option. People with fibromyalgia can share their personal stories and struggles with others who are experiencing similar symptoms. Contacting organizations such as the National Fibromyalgia Association and the American Chronic Pain Association may be a good place to start.

What is fibromyalgia?

According to the NIH, an estimated 5 million Americans experience fibromyalgia. Of those 5 million, 80 to 90 percent are women.

Fibromyalgia causes a person to experience a set of symptoms that can vary from mild to severe. The currently held belief is that the disease alters a person’s pain pathways, causing them to experience stronger pain sensations than most people do.

Those with fibromyalgia should always keep in contact with their doctors. They should have regular check-ups to ensure medications and lifestyle changes are helping to manage their pain and other related symptoms.

However, there are sometimes when a person with fibromyalgia should see their doctor outside of a regular schedule. These instances include when:

  • A person’s fibromyalgia symptoms are getting worse
  • A person is experiencing new symptoms that may or may not be related to fibromyalgia
  • A person has tried a new medication or treatment that isn’t working or may be causing other unpleasant symptoms