How Fibromyalgia Is Treated

Traditional and Complementary Approaches to Treatment

Treatments for fibromyalgia are focused on easing symptoms; there is no cure. Because no two cases of fibromyalgia are alike, treatment plans must be multi-faceted and tailored to the types and severity of symptoms you are experiencing.

Fibromyalgia is a painful condition. Treatments may involve over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs, physical and supportive therapies, stress reduction, lifestyle changes, and complementary treatments that can reduce your pain and restore your quality of life.

This article outlines treatment options for fibromyalgia, and how they can work together to help you manage your symptoms and start to feel better.

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Over-the-Counter Medications

Pain is the defining feature of fibromyalgia, and treatment focuses on managing it. The goal of medication therapy is to treat the diverse range of fibromyalgia symptoms with as few drugs as possible while getting the best result.

Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics—pain relievers—like Tylenol (acetaminophen) may provide relief of acute fibromyalgia pain with few, if any, side effects. 

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) may offer pain relief, but shouldn't be used for long periods. Fibromyalgia is not an inflammatory disease. Regular use of most NSAIDs may increase the risk of gastric bleeding, stomach ulcers, kidney impairment, and cardiovascular disease.

Prescriptions

As part of your treatment plan, your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more other medications to help you manage your symptoms and minimize side effects. These may include analgesics, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants, and other types of oral medication.

Pain Relievers

If OTC NSAIDs do not work for you, your healthcare provider may consider a prescription-strength version. Prescription NSAIDs like Celebrex (celecoxib) or Voltaren (diclofenac) also carry the same risks as their OTC counterparts, but may be appropriate for short-term relief if kept at the lowest possible effective dose.

Opioid medications are generally not recommended for fibromyalgia treatment, except in severe cases. Your healthcare provider could consider a low-dose prescription of Ultram (tramadol) for the short-term use of acute fibromyalgia flares if other painkillers have failed to provide relief.

Drugs like Vicodin (hydrocodone) and OxyContin (oxycodone) are no longer recommended.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants do more than just treat your mood. They are also used to alleviate pain, fatigue, and depression, and can also help you sleep.

There are two antidepressants approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for fibromyalgia, both of which are serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). They work by preventing serotonin and norepinephrine from being reabsorbed by cells and, by doing so, ensure greater concentration of these "feel-good" neurotransmitters in the body.

FDA-Approved Antidepressants

  • Cymbalta (duloxetine): Initial dose of 30 mg per day, increasing to a target dose of 60 milligrams per day
  • Savella (milnacipran): Initial dose of 12.5 milligrams taken once daily, increasing to 50 milligrams taken twice daily (A total maximum daily dose of 200 milligrams may be used in severe cases.)

Side effects may include nausea, dry mouth, constipation, decreased appetite, drowsiness, increased sweating, sexual problems, and agitation.

Other antidepressants are commonly prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, including SSRIs such as Celexa (citalopram), Lexapro (escitalopram), Paxil (paroxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline).

While older-generation tricyclic antidepressants are less commonly used, lower-dose Elavil (amitriptyline) has proven effective as a sleep aid while helping to ease chronic pain and depression. (Sleeping pills are generally avoided for anything but short-term relief as prolonged use can lead to dependence.)

Anticonvulsants

Although scientists aren't sure how exactly they work in fibromyalgia, anticonvulsant drugs commonly used to treat seizures and epilepsy have proven effective in treating fibromyalgia.

These drugs work by decrease the signals that damaged nerves send to the brain.

Lyrica (pregabalin) is the first anticonvulsant approved by the FDA for the treatment of fibromyalgia. If your healthcare provider prescribes this for you, treatment will likely begin with smaller doses before reaching a maximum daily dose of 450 milligrams or 330 milligrams for the extended-release tablet (taken once daily). Common side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, and weight gain.

Other anticonvulsants, such as Neurontin (gabapentin), offer a similar mechanism of action and may work just as effectively. Vimpat (lacosamide) and Keppra (levetiracetam) have also been used.

Muscle Relaxers

Muscle relaxants also seem to help in certain cases, and scientists are not exactly sure why. Because the drugs can cause drowsiness, they are typically taken at night just before bedtime.

As unrefreshing sleep is a common symptom of fibromyalgia, it has been suggested that the restoration of normal sleep patterns may reduce a person's sensitivity to pain. By contrast, sleep deprivation is known to trigger often profound pain symptoms.

The two muscle relaxants commonly used to treat fibromyalgia are Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) and Zanaflex (tizanidine). Side effects may include dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision.

Other Medications


Depending on symptoms, other medications sometimes prescribed to treat fibromyalgia include laxatives, antidiarrheals such as Imodium (loperamide) or Lomotil (diphenoxylate), and antispasmodics like Norpramin (desipramine).

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is common in people with fibromyalgia and is believed to share similar disease pathways.

Experimental Medications

A number of pharmaceutical companies are seeking FDA approval of new fibromyalgia drugs, some of which are showing more promise than others.

IMC-1: An investigational drug, IMC-1 combines the antiviral drug famciclovir with the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex (celecoxib). A phase 2 placebo-controlled trial revealed that IMC-1 cut pain levels by half in just over a third of the participants (a result slightly better than Cymbalta).

Effirma (flupirtine): This non-opioid medication has been long used in Europe to treat fibromyalgia. However, the European Medicines Agency restricted its use in 2013 due to the high risk of liver toxicity. As such, it can no longer be used for more than two weeks. While submitted for approval to the FDA in 2008, the drug has yet to receive approval in the United States.

Xyrem (sodium oxybate): This narcotic sedative has been used off-label to treat fibromyalgia. It was rejected by the FDA in 2010 due to concerns about misuse. Also known as JZP-6, the narcolepsy medication contains a form of gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a chemical commonly referred to as the "date-rape drug."

Therapies

In addition to medications, your healthcare provider may refer you to specialists to help overcome any physical or emotional challenges you may be facing.

While we tend to think of fibromyalgia as a disease of the nerves, it is actually a multi-dimensional condition in which depression, anxiety, and ill health all play a part.

To this end, you may benefit from seeing the following specialists:

  • Psychologists can provide counseling and use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to boost happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, or thoughts.
  • Psychiatrists can help if you are suffering from depression, panic attacks, and anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) commonly seen in people with fibromyalgia. Close coordination with your treating healthcare provider is needed to ensure there is no overlap or contradiction of pharmaceutical treatments.
  • Physical therapists can improve your strength and physical well-being by teaching you ways to stretch and exercise in a way that doesn't exacerbate your symptoms. They can also offer therapeutic treatments to ease pain and improve posture for more effective muscle function.
  • Occupational therapists can provide you the tools and strategies to adapt to the challenges of living with fibromyalgia. They may include energy conservation, pain management, relaxation techniques, problem solving, sleep hygiene, and goal setting.

Fibromyalgia Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Woman

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Healthy lifestyle choices, like being active and watching what you eat, can play a role in helping to relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Exercise

According to the American College of Rheumatology, exercise is one of the most effective treatments for fibromyalgia. So even though your instincts may tell you not to move for fear of triggering pain, not moving will only make things worse.

By working within your limits and gradually building your strength and flexibility, you will progressively decrease your sensitivity to pain. Working on an exercise plan with your physical therapist is a great way to get started.

As an added bonus, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, hormones that not only have an analgesic effect but can also elevate your mood.

Healthy Diet and Weight Loss

Diet and weight loss are also important. Carrying excess weight adds to the structural burden on your muscles and joints. It also reduces the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and leaves you all the more tired and fatigued. Taking steps to improve your diet improves your overall health, which in turn can help your symptoms. One small study showed that patients with fibromyalgia who adopted a FODMAP diet were able to lose weight and improve their symptoms.

Alcohol, a depressant, should also be pared back and may even need to be avoided. It also can help to quit cigarettes as numerous studies have linked smoking to increased pain intensity and poorer sleep in people with fibromyalgia.

Dietary Changes May Help

While there is no specific fibromyalgia "diet," most healthcare providers will endorse a well-balanced diet plan comprised of:

  • Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy and lean protein
  • Healthy fats, such as olive oil
  • Avoidance of caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant
  • Avoidance of processed foods, fried foods, and refined sugar

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

People faced with chronic diseases will often turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a means to take charge of their physical, psychological, and spiritual health. This is especially true for a condition like fibromyalgia in which the cause is not fully understood.

If pursuing an alternative means of treatment, be sure to tell your healthcare provider about it to ensure that it neither interferes with your treatment (as herbal remedies like St. John's Wort can sometimes do) nor causes you any harm. The fact that something is "natural" doesn't mean that is inherently safe.

Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body therapies are a group of practices often used by people with chronic illness to reduce the physiological effects of stress while enhancing physical and emotional well-being. With a condition like fibromyalgia, any practice that can tamp down the body's hardwired response to stress without drugs should be considered beneficial.

Among some of the more helpful mind-body practices:

  • Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation in which you learn not to react negatively to thoughts that might otherwise cause stress.
  • Guided imagery is a technique in which you create mental images to induce calm.
  • Deep breathing exercises (pranayama) employ rhythmic breathing techniques to induce a state of meditation.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi incorporate mindfulness with movement to gain greater acuity over the control your body.
  • Massage therapies, such as myofascial release, aim to gently release muscle tension and stress without pain.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique in which you systematically tense and relax muscles throughout your body to induce calm.
  • Biofeedback employs an electronic monitor to help you observe and control the stress response.

Complementary Medications

Natural medicines, including herbs, extracts, vitamins, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) options, are embraced by some as complementary forms of therapy. Among those that may offer benefits to people with fibromyalgia:

  • Capcaisin, the active component in chili peppers, is available in creams, sprays, and patches. Used to treat different forms of neuralgia (nerve pain), it is considered safe but may cause localized redness, itching, or burning. A 2013 study from Italy reported that the use of a 0.075 percent topical capsaicin cream applied three times daily for six weeks reduced pain scores by 30 percent.
  • 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), an amino acid that may help raise serotonin levels. While this supplement generally is considered safe, there is little data available as to its effectiveness in treating fibromyalgia.
  • Medical marijuana is well known for its ability to reduce pain, elevate mood, and improve sleep. A small study from Israel conducted in 2018 reported that people who used medical cannabis for fibromyalgia had improved pain scores and many were able to cut back on their prescriptions.

Summary

Fibromyalgia is a complex condition for which there is no cure. However, treatments are available to help bring relief from pain symptoms, help you rest, and maintain a reasonable quality of life. Treatments include medications, exercise, diet and lifestyle changes, and even complementary therapies. Your healthcare provider can work with you to develop a plan to meet your personal goals and live well.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do any foods trigger fibromyalgia pain?

    It is suspected that processed foods, sugar, gluten, and unhealthy fats can trigger fibromyalgia symptoms. However, there is limited scientific evidence to confirm that. Research suggests that eating a diet high in antioxidants and rich in magnesium, selenium, and vitamins D and B12 can ease symptoms. 

  • Should you use ice or heat for fibromyalgia pain?

    Either. Moist heat can help to relieve aches and stiffness associated with fibromyalgia pain, while ice can ease acute pain during flare-ups. 

  • Is Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve better for fibromyalgia pain?

    Tylenol is recommended for over-the-counter pain relief with fibromyalgia. While Advil and Aleve can also relieve pain, they are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which carry a risk of gastric bleeding and other side effects. Fibromyalgia is not an inflammatory disease, so NSAIDs may not be as helpful as they are for other types of pain. 

  • Does marijuana relieve fibromyalgia pain?

    It may. A small study published in 2018 found medical cannabis helped to ease fibromyalgia symptoms including pain, fatigue, and depression. During the course of the study, half of the participants were able to stop all other medications used for treating fibromyalgia symptoms. 

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