Acupuncture is commonly used to treat pain. In fact, treating pain is one of the true strengths of acupuncture. It works by reducing inflammation, improving micro-circulation, stimulating the release endorphins (the body’s own pain killing chemicals), and calming the nervous system. All useful in the treatment of fibromyalgia.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a chronic condition characterised by widespread musculoskeletal pain. Literally, fibromyalgia means “pain of the muscles and connective tissues”. Symptoms of fibromyalgia are not limited to pain though, hence it is referred to as a syndrome.
It is often associated with chronic fatigue syndrome and there are a lot of overlapping symptoms between the two conditions. As with CFS, those with fibromyalgia can have debilitating fatigue, insomnia, reduced cognitive function, tingling or numbness of the extremities, depression and anxiety.
The pain characteristic of FMS is generalised muscle pain which can come and go and migrate from area to area. Sufferers tend to be overly sensitive to tactile pressure (allodynia), and pain at certain pressure points is used in the diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
There may also be joint stiffness, muscle tics and twitches, and weakness of the limbs.
Can acupuncture treat fibromyalgia?
There are a growing number of studies into the effects of acupuncture on fibromyalgia pain, fatigue and general well-being. A recent review of 9 trials involving 395 patients listed the following conclusions:
- Acupuncture is effective at reducing pain and stiffness, and improving general fatigue and wellbeing;
- Acupuncture with electrical stimulation (electro-acupuncture) is better than needling alone in reducing pain and stiffness, and improving overall well-being, sleep and fatigue;
- Acupuncture enhances the effects of drugs and exercise on pain.
Deare JC, Zheng Z, Xue CCL, Liu JP, Shang J, Scott SW, Littlejohn G. Acupuncture for treating fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 5.
Acupuncture improves the effect of drugs and exercise in reducing pain
It’s regularly seen in the clinic, and commonly reported in clinical trials, that acupuncture combines well with standard medical therapies and can enhance the results of such treatments.
In the above review, the authors reported that patients who were given acupuncture (20 sessions) in addition to the standard medical treatment for fibromyalgia, of medication (antidepressants) and exercise, had an average pain score of 30 points lower than those who had standard care alone.
These scores were on a scale of 0 to 100 where higher scores indicate more severe pain. Standard care alone patients reported an average score of 80. Those using acupuncture as well, had an average score of 50.
Is acupuncture safe?
When performed by a qualified acupuncturist, acupuncture is safe and causes few side-effects.
In the clinical trials, in the above review, one in six people having acupuncture reported having side effects, but such events were minor and lasted less than one day. Examples of acupuncture side effects are slight discomfort or bruising at the site of the needle, or lightheadedness following treatment.
How long do the effects of treatment last?
Few clinical trials look beyond a follow-up period of more than a month or two after treatment finishes, though most see the benefits of treatment sustained during this period.
In reality, in the clinic, when acupuncture is more individualised, and combined with Chinese herbal medicine, and there is a longer term view to treatment (beyond the 6-8 sessions as in some trials), the effects of treatment are more sustained.
In particularly stubborn cases, ongoing low-level maintenance care may be required.
Treating fibromyalgia with Chinese herbs
Chinese herbal medicine gets less attention and study funding compared with acupuncture. This is in part due to the large number of variables and complexities surrounding a herbal medicine prescription, making it difficult to draw conclusions from a study.
Classical Chinese medical theory has it that once a condition becomes chronic (that is, of longer duration) the body becomes depleted. It is then that more “material” and internal therapy, with Chinese herbs, becomes important.
When pain is acute (recent) and localised, like with a sporting injury, acupuncture treatment alone is often sufficient. However, in the case of fibromyalgia, with its longer-term nature, wide-spread pain, and associated systemic issues like fatigue, insomnia, depression etc, additional help with herbal medicine is warranted.
Fibromyalgia treatment in our Orange acupuncture clinic
For a review of your fibromyalgia condition, and a recommended treatment plan, please book your appointment at our Orange Chinese medicine clinic.