If you're under the impression that physical therapy (PT) is just for hip and/or knee replacement patients and injured athletes, think again. A good physical therapist may be able to do more for you than even the strongest pain medication.

Fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disorder that causes deep body aches and pains, disturbances in sleep patterns, anxiety, depression, mental confusion, and other symptoms. There's currently no cure for this condition, but there are a variety of treatments that help patients manage symptoms. In addition to therapies and medications for pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep, many studies show that exercise is one of the most beneficial and important ways to treat fibromyalgia.

Movement and exercise loosen joints, strengthen and stretch muscles, promote restful sleep, reduce stress and improve circulation, all of which help relieve a myriad of fibromyalgia symptoms. Aerobic exercise, strength training, walking, biking, swimming, stretching, tai chi and yoga have all been proven to alleviate symptoms that is, if patients can be convinced to start and maintain an exercise program. That's where physical therapy comes in.

Here are five ways PT benefits fibromyalgia patients.

1. Physical Therapists Get the Ball Rolling

When a doctor refers a fibromyalgia patient to a PT, it may be the first step in adopting an active lifestyle. If you are like many fibromyalgia patients, you may resist exercise because you're already in pain and the thought of moving doesn't seem feasible. An experienced physical therapist will evaluate your individual symptoms and fitness level and design a program that's gentle enough to accommodate your pain, but vigorous enough to provide exercise benefits. Once you get started--and realize how much better you feel when you exercise—you're more likely to integrate it into your life on a regular basis.

2. Physical Therapy Improves Symptoms

Exercise clears away the mental fog, stress and gloomy feelings you may experience chronically. It can boost your energy and relieve your aches and pains. In addition, many PT treatments like hydrotherapy (using a combination of moist heat and cold compresses) and massage soothe and comfort as they promote healing to affected areas. A soak in a whirlpool, applications of moist heating pads or a nice relaxing rubdown can be excellent motivators for exercise.

3. Physical Therapy Can Help You Sleep Better

PTs can design therapy and exercise programs that reduce stress and make you more comfortable, which in turn help patients get the sleep they desperately need. Being less focused on your pain can help you get to sleep and stay there.

4. Physical Therapists Can Relieve Pain

Using a variety of techniques, PTs can teach you techniques for dealing with pain—some of which can be used at home. One effective technique is the use of TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) units, which stimulatesnerve fibers to reduce pain, but might also include biofeedback techniques to direct the mind away from pain sensations. In addition, massage, heat and directed exercises work in harmony to reduce pain. In fact, Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, OCS, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University says, "physical therapy often decreases the medication patients need."

5. Physical Therapists Offer Hope

Many fibromyalgia patients feel as if there's nothing they can do to actively change their outlook, diagnosis or prognosis. Sound familiar? Before you throw in the towel—and resign yourself to a life of discomfort and frustration—consider what others who suffer from fibromyalgia have experienced through physical therapy. Many will report that being plugged in to a supportive physical therapy program and experiencing some relief, helped them take control of their own well-being. Struggling with fibromyalgia can feel hopeless at times. PT might just be the best prescription yet.


Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, OCS, reviewed this article.




"Exercise Therapy for Fibromyalgia"
Current Pain Headache Report
. 2011 October; 15(5): 358-367.
Published online 2011 July 5. doi: 10.1007/s11916-011-0214-2