From the outside, a person with fibromyalgia looks perfectly normal. But on the inside, it can feel like the pain volume dial has been cranked up to high and can’t be turned down. On top of this, the high level of fatigue can interfere with life on every single level.
“Fibromyalgia is a very interesting illness,” says Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-trained physician who focuses on holistic care. “Twenty years ago we felt that it was largely a psychological illness, partly because we couldn’t find much else wrong, and partly because it responds, at least for some, to antidepressants like SSRIs.
“We’re now coming to learn that fibromyalgia is a complex illness with multiple things going on,” he adds. “There is clearly a psychological component, but this exists on top of a vague immune condition that we’re still working to define.”
The symptoms of fibromyalgia are widespread diffuse pain; psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety; and somatic symptoms such as fatigue, memory difficulties and poor sleep quality. Due to these wide-ranging symptoms, there are an equally wide number of medications commonly prescribed for fibromyalgia — everything from strong pain medicines and sleeping pills to antidepressants.
While medications may provide benefits, all pharmaceutical drugs come with side effects that may contribute to more negative outcomes, rather than the positive improvements you might hope for. That’s why we’re here to inform you about the possible side effects of commonly prescribed medications and to provide more information about natural treatment options that are known to be effective.
You may have heard of the heavily advertised fibromyalgia drug, Lyrica (pregabalin). It’s an antiepileptic, anticonvulsant medication that slows down seizure-related impulses in the brain, and also influences nervous system pain-signalling chemicals in the brain, which is why it’s commonly prescribed for fibromyalgia.
According to a recent review of studies on Lyrica, using the drug daily does reduce pain by 30 to 50%. But 70 to 90% of people also experience side effects, the most common being dizziness (38%), drowsiness (23%), weight gain (9%) and peripheral edema (8%).
Common side effects of Lyrica are:
- loss of balance or coordination
- problems with memory or concentration
- breast swelling
- dry mouth
There are more serious side effects that can also occur:
- mood or behavior changes
- depression and anxiety
- panic attacks
- trouble sleeping
- feeling impulsive
- irritable, agitated, hostile, aggressive behavior
- suicidal tendencies, or having thoughts about suicide or hurting yourself
If you experience any of these more serious symptoms, consult with your doctor immediately.
Antidepressants such as tricyclics (amitriptyline and cyclobenzaprine), selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such at Cymbalta (duloxetine), Savella (milnacipran) and the SSRI Prozac (fluoxetine) are often prescribed. Though they can be effective, nearly all antidepressants are associated with side effects and can sometimes result in serious adverse events, too.
‘We’re now coming to learn that fibromyalgia is a complex illness with multiple things going on.’— Jordan Tishler, MD
For more severe pain, opioid receptor agonists may be prescribed, the side effects of which are sedation, dizziness, nausea, constipation (very high rate), tolerance (requiring higher doses) and psychological addiction/physical dependence on the drug. Chronic opioid use leads to changes in brain neuroplasticity, which is what causes this.
As you can see, it’s important to read up on the possible side effects because if you find your fibromyalgia symptoms are getting worse, not better, it could be the type of medication you’ve been prescribed. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to review your options.
Alternatively, you could try some natural treatments that have demonstrated efficacy.
“Even though it seems counteractive due to the high levels of fatigue experienced by fibromyalgia sufferers, exercise (both aerobic and strength-based approaches) actually works to decrease symptoms and fatigue,” says Dr. Tishler. “The message here, though, is to ‘start low and go slow.’”
Eliminate Inflammatory Foods
Registered dietitian Ryan Whitcomb recommends identifying inflammatory and allergenic foods through a food sensitivity test known as an MRT (mediator release test.)
“This is my first go-to line of defense because it eliminates all the guesswork when it comes to problematic foods,” says Whitcomb. “Once these foods are identified, they are removed from the diet and we slowly add in safe, non-reactive foods.”
One such inflammatory food identified as a problem is gluten. Studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia commonly have non-celiac gluten sensitivity — not an allergy, but an intolerance to gluten. In one small study with fibromyalgia patients, 75% of them experienced a dramatic reduction in widespread pain after eliminating gluten. Some even no longer had pain at all. And in a few of the patients taking opioid medications, the drugs were discontinued, simply by following a gluten-free diet.
Address Nutrient Deficiencies
Once inflammatory foods are removed from the diet, it may be that people have nutrient deficiencies that also need to be addressed.
“Magnesium and vitamin D are common deficiencies,” says Whitcomb. “But rather than assuming that’s the patient’s issue, I run a comprehensive micronutrient panel that looks at 33 nutrients to get a broad overview of what’s really going on in their body.
“Once we know their deficiencies, we can talk about repleting through food and supplements. Food is preferable, but some nutrients, like vitamin D, need to be supplemented since there aren’t many foods that contain it.”
Examine Sleep Quality
“Poor sleep seems to be a major contributor to this illness, so good sleep habits, such as reducing stimulants like coffee, and the occasional use of prescription sleep aids are important approaches,” says Dr. Tishler.
Try Medical Cannabis Therapy
“I have many fibromyalgia patients in my practice and have found cannabis can be a very effective treatment,” says Dr. Tishler, who is also a medical marijuana specialist. “Cannabis is great for pain control and equally good for promoting sleep. In fact, it’s considerably better for sleep than any conventional medication. It’s also considerably safer for pain control than opioid options.
“And on top of this, cannabis is effective for mild depression and anxiety, both of which are associated with fibromyalgia as well. I have certainly found cannabis to be truly effective for fibromyalgia patients because it addresses the illness on so many levels,” he adds.
Jedha Dening (MNutr) is a freelance health writer, copywriter, and research reporter with a passion for crafting compelling stories that make a difference.