By Ginevra Liptan, MD
Many of the 10 million Americans suffering from widespread muscle pain due to fibromyalgia look for non-prescriptions options for pain relief. As a physician with fibromyalgia myself, I want to share with you the most effective natural options that I include in my own pain relief “toolbox,” which includes anti-inflammatory herbs, topical creams, and a unique form of massage that breaks up painful muscle knots.
Spicy yellow goodness
Turmeric roots are dried and ground into a spicy orange powder that has been used as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever for hundreds of years in India. More recently researchers have called curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, the “herbal ibuprofen.” One study found that curcumin was actually more effective at reducing pain and swelling in arthritic joints than anti-inflammatory medications.
While adding turmeric as a spice to foods tastes good, it has to be eaten in pretty large quantities to get a medicinal effect, as our gut does not absorb it well. The maximum pain relief effects are usually found with supplements that contain curcumin optimized for absorption (such as curcumin phosphatidylcholine complex). Although curcumin is much safer than anti-inflammatory medications, it does have some mild blood-thinning effects, so make sure to ask your health care provider before starting supplementation.
Rub this where it hurts
Creams derived from natural products can also provide local relief for painful muscles in fibromyalgia. The best part is that topical treatments tend to be very well tolerated with few side effects. Arnica is an herb used since the 1500s to treat bruises, muscle pain, and inflammation. It is still used today as a natural treatment for muscle pain in many different topical remedies. One herbal homeopathic cream that I have found helpful is MyPainAway Fibro cream. It includes arnica to reduce muscle pain, echinacea to reduce inflammation, along with other herbs targeted to reduce nerve pain by improving microcirculation around pain-sensing nerves.
Capsaicin creams are another topical option for pain relief. These contain the active component in chili peppers that cause a burning sensation. I know its sounds like this would cause more pain, but in fact the low levels of capsaicin in these creams block pain by temporarily depleting the nerves of certain chemicals that transmit pain impulses. Application of this cream three times daily was shown to significantly improve pain scores for fibromyalgia in one study done in Spain.
Break up those muscle knots
Almost every person with fibromyalgia describes their muscles as tight and full of painful muscle knots called trigger points. After I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia during medical school, I tried many different styles of massage, but got no benefit until I found a specialized technique called myofascial release pioneered by John Barnes, PT. This form of massage therapy involves using very slow but sustained gentle pressure to separate tiny adhesions in the muscle tissue and fascia, and this lessens muscle tension and gently breaks up knots in the connective tissue (to learn more about the vital importance of fascia in fibromyalgia, read my previous blog post). Two European studies found that myofascial release therapy was effective for reducing fibromyalgia pain, and that it gave long-lasting pain relief even at one month and six months after the last session. To find a John Barnes-trained therapist skilled in this technique go to www.mfrtherapists.com.
The good news is that myofascial release is also something we can do for ourselves! A recent study showed that a regular program of self-myofascial release lowered pain intensity and lessened stiffness. To start, you can simply lie on the floor and place a small, soft ball (around the size and density of a large orange) under any tight and painful muscle areas. Then allow your body to sink onto and around the ball for a few minutes to provide the right amount of sustained pressure to allow the fascia to release.
Certain types of yoga can also gently stretch the fascia. Yin Yoga (sometimes called Restorative Yoga) involves variations of seated and supine poses—often supported by props—and typically held for 3–5 minutes. This form of yoga is another great way to give yourself some myofascial release, loosen painful muscles, and break up tissue knots.
The best part about these natural options is that we can do them for ourselves and take symptom control back into our own hands!
Ginevra Liptan, MD is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, board-certified in internal medicine who developed fibromyalgia during medical school. She is now the medical director of The Frida Center for Fibromyalgia and the author of The FibroManual: A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide for You and Your Doctor.