*This was inspired by research I did for a friend diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. *
- a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.
“bacterial meningitis is a rare disease”
synonyms:illness, sickness, ill health; More
- a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people.
The above is directly out of a dictionary, it is quite self-explanatory, or so one would think. Fibromyalgia is a disease that, according to some doctors, affects 5-12million Americans. Why is that number so varied? Well, it would seem that many doctors across the nation have forgotten the definition of the word disease. The way they see it is that since there is no known direct cause and you can only treat symptoms (which let’s face it, that is the majority of what Western Medicine does anyway) Fibromyalgia does not exist. Furthermore, they say 5-12million (roughly 4-5%of the population) people are imagining this disease. What????!!!! That is like saying “I don’t know how this virus on my computer works, it must not really exist, the computer is lying to me about why it is acting up.” This makes it hard to get accurate numbers on how many people are affected by the disease. Luckily, not all doctors practicing western medicine feel that way.
”What is the most common misconception about fibromyalgia? The top misconception is that people think fibromyalgia isn’t a real medical problem or that it is “all in your head.” There’s a lot that’s unknown about fibromyalgia, but researchers have learned more about it in just the past few years.
In people who have fibromyalgia, the brain and spinal cord process pain signals differently. As a result, they react more strongly to touch and pressure, with a heightened sensitivity to pain. It is a real physiological and neurochemical problem.”– MayoClinic.com
Since there is no known direct cause of Fibromyalgia, it makes it very hard to diagnose. The best they can figure is that it is brought on by severe stress. People who are most likely to develop the disease have had extreme and sometimes multiple physical and/or emotional traumas. Also, Fibromyalgia tends to affect women more often than men. The reason Fibromyalgia is so hard to diagnose though, lies in the fact that many of its symptoms can also be brought on by other diseases or illnesses. Some symptoms include tension headaches, muscle spasms in trigger points, irritable bowel syndrome, Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. Before you can get tested for Fibromyalgia most doctors have you go through several other disease tests. After they determine that your symptoms are not caused by any other disease, they may send you to a Rheumatoid doctor. A Rheumatoid doctor is the only doctor who can formally diagnose Fibromyalgia.
Tracy, a Fibromyalgia patient, says it took her 3 yrs. to be diagnosed. Her symptoms started with tender trigger points and bowel symptoms. Her doctors at first treated the bowel symptoms and ignored her complaints of pain. Telling her it was in her head. She went from doctor to doctor, sometimes undergoing tests and others being told she was an addict (or at least be treated that way when complaining about the pain). She went through numerous blood tests, CT scans, swallowed cameras, had 2 endoscopes, 2 colonoscopies, muscle tests, and shock tests.
Tracy, whom I have known for almost 20 years, was always an active and outgoing person. We were in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) in High School and worked on the school farm. Over an almost 20year span we have spent much time together. She was in family bowling and softball leagues with her husband and 2 kids. I watched her suffer through the pain for years, slowly over time almost one by one she quit playing in the leagues. She had had some knee problems in HS and had to have surgery on her knee. Later, she assumed a lot of her pain was stemming from that. Some doctors agreed, and she went through several more surgeries before they told her that her knee was not the problem. During this time of the knee surgery insanity, she had also began experiencing bowel issues along with the muscle spasms. So, she went to see if that was the problem, it wasn’t. This goes on and on as she gains another symptom of Fibromyalgia. I remember her calling me trying not to worry because they were doing blood work ups for MS. When those came back negative some doctors started to tell her that her pain is imaginary.
They told her that her debilitating pain, fatigue, swelling, bruising, bowel symptoms, migraines and test tightening pain were imaginary and there was nothing they would do for her. Tracy’s life has all but come to a stop and most of the time she feels like she is on the outside looking in. Her family is supportive and helps her out cleaning the house and doing extra chores. Her children do this without complaint because they see how hard their Mom is trying just to get through the day, so she can drop them at school and pick them up then help them with their homework. In the meantime, her symptoms got worse without any treatment at all. The arthritis came, the costochondritis (a disease brought on by Fibromyalgia) came and she fought and fought until finally a doctor sent her to a Rheumatoid doctor where she was diagnosed. He put her on a regimen of pills to treat her symptoms since that’s about all they can do. She goes in every 3 months for steroid shots in her chest and in her shoulder. She takes Soma for muscle spasms and Norco for pain and takes Benadryl to help her sleep (to avoid addiction to sleeping pills). Her life is dominated by her ability to pay for and take medications. After years of suffering from side effects she began only taking the sleep and pain meds as the others caused many other problems and that just added to her medication intake. It’s been about 7 yrs. since she was finally diagnosed. Mark, Tracy’s husband, is constantly calling her at home to check on her. He worries about her going to the grocery store to shop. Mark told me, “One trip to the grocery store on a good day can put her in bed for the next two.” He sometimes must help her walk not just because of pain but sometimes because she gets the same sensation in her limbs as those who have lost limbs. In other words, she can see her arm, it feels like she can move it but for all intents and purposes it is temporarily paralyzed. Tracy’s struggles are her family’s struggles. “They struggle with me every day, Rebecca, ” she tells me, “we can’t make plans for anything, because whenever I know what days I will be able to get out of bed.” She has asked me to help her find some herbal medicines that she might take. It’s this request that spurred my research and then my desire to make this blog.
Tracy and I hope that telling her very abbreviated story of getting diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, helps in two ways. One, so that people with Fibromyalgia and other invisible illnesses know they are not alone and two, so that hopefully those without Fibromyalgia or any other invisible illness may gain even a glimmer of understanding.
So, before I can give a list of herbs and uses to someone who wants to use them for healing purposes, I need to understand the symptoms and causes of the symptoms. Hence, the 12 pages of research I gathered in a 14-hour study of Fibromyalgia. Now, on to Science.
Fibromyalgia is a widespread musculoskeletal pain that is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety, depression, bowel problems and more. Since scientists have not been able to find a direct cause for Fibromyalgia it can be hard to diagnose.
Though, I don’t believe that is an excuse for saying something doesn’t exist.
Researchers have found that most often the symptoms arrive after traumas. This includes both physical and psychological traumas. It may also be a genetic disease as well.
A big key to Fibromyalgia is the two key body systems in which Fibromyalgia causes malfunctions. The autonomic nervous system and the HPA (Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis. These two systems regulate the production of specific hormones and your body’s response to stress. This may be a large part in why traumas can seem to activate the disease.
Our HPA axis is a complex pathway in our brain. It is our brain to body link and involves communication between our pituitary and adrenal glands as well as our hypothalamus.
For those with Fibromyalgia, the HPA axis becomes damaged and unable to regulate the production of cortisol, our bodies natural response to stress.
When we become stressed our brain’s amygdala, the fear center of our brain, starts making cortisol. In small regulated doses cortisol is helpful, it temporarily blocks parts of our brain so that we can react to the stress, change the situation and move on. When we continue to stress or if our creation of cortisol becomes unregulated it begins to cause problems. Long exposures to high cortisol levels kills off brain cells and prevents new cells from forming. Our amygdala begins to grow, increasing the feelings of fear and anxiety, while simultaneously decreasing our hippocampus, our emotion, memory, and autonomic nervous system center.
“Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, like reproduction and the immune system, to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. These functions of cortisol are supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the offending stressor.”
Though, not all who have Fibromyalgia are found to have high cortisol levels. Some people tend to have the other extreme, which is called Adrenal Fatigue (some also believe this does not exist). The symptoms for both high and low levels of fatigue are similar.
Cortisol gives us energy. In the morning we receive a dose of it to help us get through our day. When we become stressed we are given another dose, when those stressors don’t go away we can damage our ability to make cortisol, this is adrenal fatigue. High cortisol and adrenal fatigue have almost all the same symptoms, fatigue, muscle issues, depression, sleep disorders, bowel complications, etc….
Our autonomic system and HPA axis systems are both major pathways for how our bodies respond to stressful conditions. They are also, both greatly impacted by our genetics, environment and chronic illnesses. It is our autonomic system that influences pain levels, alertness, gastrointestinal motility, fatigue, blood pressure and more. Everything listed above can be a symptom for Fibromyalgia. Just like any illness, results will vary at least a little in different patience as our genetic make-up defers.
Some research has shown that low levels of serotonin may be leading to increased sensitivity to pain and low levels of the human growth hormone is linked to muscle pain. At least mental health has been ruled out as a cause for Fibromyalgia. As for me and my research, it seems obvious that it is somehow related to cortisol and the interactions of Fibromyalgia patient’s HPA axis and autonomic system. Then again, I am just an enthusiastic herbalist.
If you have Fibromyalgia or think you might, these are other diseases to watch for:
- systemic erythematosus
- rheumatoid arthritis
- autoimmune diseases
- costochondritis (this causes pain between the ribs and can make it feel like you are having a heart attack)
Herbs. A more familiar realm for me. I looked up herbs that deal with pain, fatigue, sleep, bowel upsets (though I resist telling any of those as it really depends on what type of bowel problems you are having), muscle spasms, and arthritis.
Remember, I am not a doctor, I am only providing information for you as a reference point. Certain herbs and foods may have adverse effects when combined with prescription drugs and/or when not, all symptoms have been considered. So please, please, please, consult a physician before taking any herbal remedies including the ones below. That said, here is a list of herbs and their uses.
- St. John’s Wort- has been known to work as well as Prozac and Zoloft in treating anxiety and depression
- SAM-e – may help increase restful sleep
- Vitamin D- Research has shown that Fibromyalgia patients tend to have low levels of the Vitamin and when taken over a period of 25wks, they experienced some relief from symptoms
- Chamomile- helps with muscle spasms, anxiety, rheumatic pain and sleep
- Valerian root- is a relaxant and is known to help aid in sleep. It may also help with the amount of overall tender point counts resulting in an overall improvement. Use an essential oil in your bath (with a doctor’s consensus of course)
- Cayenne- is a well-known muscle pain killer, great for migraines and tension headaches
- Gingko Bilboa (200mg) and Coenzyme 10 combined – showed results over an 84-day study in 2002. This showed a gradual but effective result with minor to no side effects in patients.
- Red Clover- boosts energy and immune system. Contains high levels of vitamins B&C which tend to be lacking in those with Fibromyalgia
- Ginseng- Helps to stimulate proper functions of organs. It gradually eliminates discomforts of Fibromyalgia and helps to restore energy after an attack
- Kava kava- reduces anxiety, muscle tension, muscle spasms, mental stress, and helps with blood flow to the brain allowing clearer thinking.
Please be sure to check with your doctor about potential adverse reactions to any herbs and your current medications before trying alternative remedies.
Vitamins, Herbs, Minerals, & Supplements: A Complete Guide— H. Winter Griffith, M.D.
Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs A Beginners Guide—Rosemary Gladstar