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Fibromyalgia: Is There Hope for Chronic Pain?

Better Nutrition. Feb. 1998; 60(2)
Victoria Dolby

If you're a woman in your early 30s and experience chronic muscle pain, stiffness, and trouble sleeping, you're not alone. You may be one of the 3 to 6 million people suffering from fibromyalgia. There is a lot that doctors don't understand about fibromyalgia -- such as what causes this complex disorder, or what cures it. What is known is that many of the victims of fibromyalgia are women 25-45 years old. These women (and some men, too) report the primary symptoms of aches and pains in their muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Other common symptoms include fatigue, swelling, muscle spasms, stiffness, headache, and difficulty getting a "good" night's sleep. There is a possibility that fibromyalgia is hereditary.

Since the symptoms of fibromyalgia are somewhat vague, misdiagnosis as hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, or other disorders is common. Although fibromyalgia generally emerges between the ages of 29 and 37, most people are not correctly diagnosed until the ages of 34 to 53 -- with the intervening years often spent being treated for one of the above-mentioned misdiagnosed conditions.

Back at the turn of the century, the condition of fibromyalgia was called fibrosis," since the syndrome was erroneously believed to be related to inflammation of fibrous tissue. In 1976, the term fibromyalgia was introduced to reflect the fact that the syndrome is more accurately described as pain in the fibrous tissue. In 1990, the American College of Rheumatology released guidelines for diagnosing fibromyalgia, based on a history of widespread pain lasting longer than three months, combined with pain in 11 of 18 specific points (called "tender points") in muscular tissue. Treatment for fibromyalgia, until a cure is found, focuses on easing the symptoms of this syndrome -- such as with nutrients or therapies to manage pain, improve sleep quality, and increase energy levels.

A good place to start is an examination of the overall diet, which should be adequate in all of the essential vitamins and minerals. Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine should be avoided, since they interfere with sleep and energy patterns.

Several studies involving patients with fibromyalgia suggest that a combination supplement providing magnesium and malic acid can relieve muscle pain. The individuals in these studies, after taking 300-600 mg of magnesium and 1,200-2,400 mg of malic acid each day for eight weeks, reported significant pain relief. And when the magnesium/malic acid supplements were secretly switched with dummy pills, the pain returned, indicating that the supplement was in fact helping control the pain of fibromyalgia.

The B vitamin, thiamin, may also be helpful in easing fibromyalgia, since some studies have found fibromyalgia patients to have low thiamin status. However, the exact role that this vitamin might have in fibromyalgia remains unclear. In addition, vitamin E supplements are recommended by some clinicians as part of a dietary supplement plan for fibromyalgia.

Based on the similar symptoms between fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), many of the herbs used to treat CFS have been tried (with varied success) in people with fibromyalgia. For example, licorice root supports healthy adrenal gland function, and may help when taken for a six-to-eight-week period. An adaptogenic herb, such as ginseng, can then be used on an ongoing basis to boost the overall health of the body.

Exercise is among the most important recommendations for people with fibromyalgia. Start out with low-impact aerobic exercise, such as swimming, stationary bicycling, or walking, for as little as a few minutes every other day, and build up to 20-minute sessions three to four times per week. Once you feel comfortable with a regular exercise schedule, more demanding exercise, such as jogging or tennis, can be incorporated. Since stress can exacerbate symptoms of fibromyalgia, stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, may also be helpful.


Abraham, G., and Flechas, J. "Management of fibromyalgia: rationale for the use of magnesium and malic acid," J Nutr Med 3:49-59, 1992.

Russell, J., et al. "Treatment of fibromyalgia syndrome with SuperMalic: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover pilot study," J Rheum 22(5):953-957, 1995.

Copyright 1998 Intertec Publishing Corporation, a PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved. Copyright 1998 Information Access Company.