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The pains of fibromyalgia
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

For Brianna, it started out with the flu – or so she thought.

 

Busy with a 5-year-old, several part-time jobs, karate lessons and a lot of community and church volunteer work, Brianna (not her real name) had to slow down the pace a while when she got a nasty illness – low-grade fever, severe fatigue and painful joint pain, headaches and discomfort in her back and shoulders.

 

The problem was, “the symptoms just wouldn’t go away,” she said. They kept on … and on … and on.

 

Brianna did her best to “work through it,” but the pain “zapped me of energy. First I thought it was stress, then I thought it was allergies. Then I thought it must be the karate.” Trying to solve the problem herself, she quit smoking, dropped karate, and began allergy treatments. But nothing cured the continuous pain.

 

By then, her husband had pointed out, “You’re not in pain because you’re depressed, but you’re getting depressed because you have the pain. You have to do something about this.”

 

Brianna underwent a litany of tests – for tuberculoses, Lyme disease, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, heavy metal poisonings, and much more. All the tests were negative. “But then they said, ‘There is this one other thing we can test for.’ They touched me in different places, which was extremely painful – like they were inflamed. I asked, ‘How did you know (where to touch me)?’ And they explained the pressure points that help diagnose Fibromyalgia.”

 

Only a few years ago, Fibromyalgia was considered a psychosomatic illness. Today, doctors know that the condition, believed to be an autoimmune disease, is real – but as Brianna’s doctors explained, the diagnoses itself is a two-edged sword. The condition has a name, but no cure, and few helpful treatments.

 

Sufferers have pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons, and muscles may twitch and burn. Between 80 and 90 percent of sufferers are women, but no one knows why. To be diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a patent must test negatively for other diseases, must have suffered from widespread pain throughout the body for three months or more, and must have severe pain which touched in at least 11 of 18 specified tender points. The illness is chronic but can wax and wane over the months and years.

 

Studies show that Fibromyalgia can be just as disabling as rheumatoid arthritis, and many sufferers cannot work full-time. In addition, treatments such as exercise, which can help with other kinds of pain, can make the pain of Fibromyalgia even worse.

 

People with Fibromyalgia often suffer from disturbed slumber, so their body may not feel rested after a “good night’s sleep.” Some treatments focus in on helping improve sleep. Other treatments focus on the pain, and some sufferers are prescribed narcotics.

 

A severe allergy to opiates meant that narcotics are not an option for Brianna, so she cycles between using aspirin, Advil and Tylenol. She also uses a variety of over-the-counter supplements that have shown various degrees of success in helping with the pain of Fibromyalgia. She reads everything she can get on the topic, and has tried some experimental treatments, including a low dose of antidepressants which simply made her feel more fatigued and unable to function.

 

After losing an 8-to-5 job because the cycles of the illness didn’t allow her to follow such a set schedule, she changed careers and now works when she’s most able, and allows herself to rest when she needs to.

 

For Brianna, the worst part of the disease is that “We think of people who complain all the time as hypochondriacs. But it doesn’t take away any of your good character – you’re no less of a person because you have Fibromyalgia. You’re simply less able to do things.”

 

The Madison area offers a wide variety of treatment options for people with Fibromyalgia – some medical, some “alternative,” and all having various rates of success depending on the individual.

 

The UW Integrative Medicine Clinic offers Mindfulness Meditation, which, according to Cathy Mike from the clinic, “results in a reduction in their perception of pain. It changes the person’s relationship to pain … and feel it (simply) as sensations in the body.”

 

The clinic also offers acupuncture, which has been shown to significantly improve Fibromyalgia symptoms in women, at least in the short term. Other treatments there include massage therapy, bodywork, Healing Touch, health psychology, Feldenkrais and Eastern Practices.

 

Debra Friedman, of the Bioenergy Clinic in Madison, also offers a plethora of treatments – acupuncture, naturopathy, nutritional assessment, iridology (study of the iris of the eye), hair analysis and other energetic assessments. “Treatment involves picking the right combination of treatment modalities,” she says. “The main thing is that previously disheartened Fibromyalgia patients, full of despair, do regain hope and confidence as they rebuild their health … (But) reversing the problem takes time; there is no quick fix.”

 

For those in the process of undergoing treatment, communicating with others that have the same challenges can help a great deal. Kay Maffitt, RN, BSN, an educator at the Community Health Education Center at Meriter Hospital, offers a Fibromyalgia Education and Support group. “A support group can provide an opportunity for people with similar experiences to share practical information, tips on how to cope with unique situations, and offer emotional support,” she says. “It’s a chance to find information, encouragement and camaraderie.”

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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