For many people who have fibromyalgia, even the thought of exercising is painful.
Yet a new study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center shows that exercise does not worsen the pain associated with the disorder and may even lessen it over time. The findings are published in the current online issue of the journal Arthritis Care & Research.
According to Dennis Ang, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and senior author of the study, doing light to moderate exercise over a prolonged period of time improves overall symptoms, such as fatigue and trouble sleeping, while not increasing pain.
“For many people with fibromyalgia, they will exercise for a week or two and then start hurting and think that exercise is aggravating their pain, so they stop exercising,” Ang said. “We hope that our findings will help reduce patients’ fear and reassure them that sustained exercise will improve their overall health and reduce their symptoms without worsening their pain.”
To evaluate the relationship between long-term maintenance of moderate intensity exercise, defined as light jogging or brisk walking for 20 minutes a day, the research team enrolled 170 volunteers to participate in a 36-week study. Participants received individualized exercise prescriptions and completed baseline and follow-up physical activity assessments using the Community Health Activities Model Program for Seniors (CHAMPS) questionnaire at weeks 12, 24 and 36.
The study found that participants who engaged in moderate intensity exercise for at least 12 weeks showed greater improvements in clinical symptoms as compared to participants who were unable to achieve higher levels of physical activity.
Fibromyalgia, also called fibromyalgia syndrome, is a long-term condition which causes pain all over the body.
Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain and extreme tiredness. People with fibromyalgia may also have:
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
More importantly, Ang said, the findings showed that long-term physical activity at levels consistent with current medical recommendations is not associated with worsening pain symptoms in fibromyalgia.
Approximately 10 percent of the adult population in the United States has fibromyalgia or fibromyalgia-like conditions. The disorder is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by sleep disturbance, fatigue and memory issues. Experts believe that fibromyalgia is a disorder of pain processing due to abnormalities in how pain signals are processed in the central nervous system.
People with fibromyalgia frequently hurt all over and feel exhausted all the time. Those symptoms often force you to seriously limit your physical activity. It’s also common to have problems concentrating and remembering things. A lot of people with fibromyalgia have symptoms so severe that they have to quit or modify their jobs.
Because fibromyalgia is frequently misunderstood, family, friends, co-workers and even medical providers may not believe the person is actually sick. A proper diagnosis often takes months.
Adding to these considerable frustrations, it can be difficult or impossible to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. That’s in large part because it used to be commonplace for doctors to mislabel any chronic pain of unknown origin as fibromyalgia, and the diagnosis is still misused somewhat today.
Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms vary widely from one person to another. Some people have only a few, while others have many. The intensity of symptoms is different in everyone as well, ranging from mildly annoying to highly debilitating.
Common fibromyalgia symptoms include:
Cognitive or memory impairment (“fibro fog”)
Abdominal complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome
Frequently, people with undiagnosed fibromyalgia don’t realize that a host of secondary symptoms are related to the pain, fatigue and other primary symptoms. Keeping a detailed list of symptoms can help your doctor make a diagnosis.
The study was supported by grant 1RO1AR054324-01A1 from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Co-authors are Anthony Kaleth, Ph.D., Chandan Saha, Ph.D., and James Slaven, M.S., of Indiana University; and Mark Jensen, Ph.D., of the University of Washington.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center