Fibromyalgia was first described by doctors in the early 1800s, when it was called muscular rheumatism. Writing in British and Foreign Medico-chirurgical Review in 1849, one M Valleix wrote that, “the essential character of this affection is pain, and no anatomical lesion belongs to it, unless it become complicated with other affections”. As for treatment, the author recommended bleeding, hydrotherapy, shampooing and thermal waters. Somewhat astonishingly, given that this report was written over 160 years ago, the author mentions that a number of sources cite that acupuncture, “after the failure of other remedies, effected a cure”.

Today, fibromyalgia is known as a condition of widespread pain and muscle stiffness around the body, often accompanied by a range of symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia and difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The term Fibromyalgia comes from a composite of fibra, meaning the fibrous tissues of tendons and ligaments, my, from the Greek for muscles, and algos from the Greek word for pain. In the 1970s, a new way of diagnosing fibromyalgia was developed, with a diagnosis depending on two symptoms:

  • There is pain in all four quadrants of the body and has been for at least three months
  • There is pain in at least 11 of 18 specific tender points

The exact causes of fibromyalgia are not yet known, but it often develops after some kind of trauma – whether an accident, intense emotional event or long term illness. Today, between 3 and 5% of the people, according to a survey of five European countries, suffer from fibromyalgia, a condition that is now more common than rheumatoid arthritis.

Contemporary treatments for fibromyalgia – gone are the days of bleeding and shampooing – focus on the symptoms people experience rather than the condition itself. In other words people are often prescribed medication to help with sleep, depression and pain, as well as counseling and making lifestyle changes.

In a recent Cochrane Review of acupuncture for treating fibromyalgia concluded that acupuncture treatment could help with reducing pain and stiffness and improving overall well-being and fatigue. It also showed that acupuncture with electrical stimulation is probably better than non-stimulated acupuncture. Unfortunately there are still few studies and those that have been carried out often have small sample sizes. As with much acupuncture research, there is plenty of room for larger studies and studies which include a “sham acupuncture” group.

In a study carried out shortly after the Review was published, researchers found that tender-point acupuncture treatment had a positive effect on patient’s overall well-being, improving quality of life, but also reducing the pain sensitivity of fibromyalgia.

Although the precise mechanism by which acupuncture helps treat fibromyalgia is not known, there are suggestions that it could work by:

  • Altering brain chemistry and increasing endorphins or reducing serotonin
  • Improving stiffness and muscle pain by encouraging microcirculation

For those who would like even more information, The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) offers a useful page on fibromyalgia and acupuncture.

Click here to see an acupuncture practitioner in the York area.

References

The British and Foreign Medico-chirurgical Review Or Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery. 1849. Vol IV. New York. Richard and George S Wood.

Deare, J.C., Zheng, Z., Xue, C.C., Liu, J.P., Shang, J., Scott, S.W. and Littlejohn, G., 2013. Acupuncture for treating fibromyalgia. In: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. [online] John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Available at: <http://tinyurl.com/ostofus >