Acupuncture and Herbal Treatments for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia syndrome is characterized by chronic, widespread musculoskeletal pain and often accompanied by symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction, and mood issues. It is the result of abnormalities in the nervous system; an exact cause of those abnormalities is unknown, but they have been linked to psychological, genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors.

Fibromyalgia symptoms typically appear after a patient experiences physical trauma or psychological stress, and the condition is often associated with depression and anxiety. Anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of the population may suffer from fibromyalgia, and it’s much more prevalent in women than men.

Since fibromyalgia symptoms vary widely among patients, there are few standard treatment options. Typical treatments consist of pain, antidepressant, or anti-seizure medications, along with regular exercise, stress reduction, and a healthy diet (see “Ask Your Acupuncturist”). However, clinical trials have shown that Eastern Medicine can be an effective fibromyalgia treatment – and one that does not rely on medications that can cause physical and psychological dependence.

Acupuncture, cupping therapy, and moxibustion can treat fibromyalgia’s musculoskeletal pain and inflammation. Most people think of phlegm as a sticky substance restricted to the respiratory system, but Eastern medicine regards phlegm as a pathogenic influence that can accumulate anywhere in the body, and is a result of factors such as improper diet and lifestyle.

Phlegm and its accompanying “damp” symptoms, which tend to be heavy and sluggish and worsen in damp weather conditions, can lodge itself into the muscle tissue of fibromyalgia patients, causing muscle stagnation and disrupting the normal function of other body systems. Acupuncture and cupping can clear this “dampness” from the affected areas and stimulate the circulation of blood and qi. Herbal supplements can drain dampness as well.

Eastern medicine can also treat fibromyalgia by addressing the body’s imbalance of qi and blood circulation. The pain and shock associated with fibromyalgia generate heat, which constrains the liver’s ability to move qi and blood throughout the body. This can lead to the experience of emotional imbalance (frustration, anger, and even depression) as well as insomnia (because qi cannot get to the heart) or digestive issues (because qi does not flow to the spleen or large intestine).

The herbal formula Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang is often used to promote blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and treat systemic pain. Additional herbal remedies can relieve the liver’s qi stagnation, stimulate the immune system, and treat digestive disorders. Because fibromyalgia symptoms can vary, appropriate herbal treatments may vary as well, so it’s important that fibromyalgia patients talk to before taking any herbal supplement.

Ask Your Acupuncturist

Q. Can diet play a role in treating fibromyalgia?

A. Yes. In clinical studies, many fibromyalgia patients reported that their symptoms worsened after they ate certain foods. Common food sensitivities include dairy, gluten, caffeine, and food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame. I generally recommend an autoimmune Paleo (AIP) protocol for fibromyalgia patients; such a diet eliminates grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other foods linked to autoimmune flare-ups and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fats, grass-fed meats, and fresh herbs. In addition, since vitamin D deficiency can mimic the bone and muscle pain associated with fibromyalgia, many patients take vitamin D3 supplements as part of their treatment.