Could Physical Therapy Provide Fibromyalgia Relief?

If you have fibromyalgia, simple movement may be the last thing you want to do. But simple movements through physical therapy may be just the right treatment for you. How does physical therapy provide fibromyalgia relief? The answer: With a hands-on approach to reduce fatigue, pain, stiffness and loss of strength that accompanies fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome estimated to affect 5 million Americans (mostly women) with widespread aches and pains, fatigue, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression. Doctors don't know what causes fibromyalgia and there's currently no known cure. There are a variety of treatment options however that relieve patients' symptoms. Standard treatments include painkillers, antidepressants, cognitive-behavioral therapy, exercise and physical therapy.

Physical therapy and exercise address the physical problems caused by fibromyalgia such as pain, fatigue, de-conditioning, muscle weakness, and sleep disturbances. Patrice Winter PTMS, physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association says, "Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) can be very debilitating. The fatigue associated with it varies from mild to overwhelming. Some patients can't get even out of bed. By the time many patients come to a physical therapist, they're often severely de-conditioned from lack of activity due and this compounds their fatigue."

How can physical therapy relieve fibromyalgia? Physical therapists design individual treatment plans that use a variety of passive and active treatments.

Passive treatments may include:

  • Deep tissue massage to relieve muscle tension and spasms and improve muscular and joint range of motion.
  • Soft Tissue Mobilization to treat muscle spasms, trigger points and improve range of motion.
  • Heat Therapy to relax muscles, improve circulation to affected areas, and improve the body's natural healing processes.
  • Ice Therapy to reduce inflammation.
  • Hydrotherapy (hot baths and whirlpools) to relax muscles, improve circulation and allow for gentle no-stress exercise.
  • Electric Muscle Stimulation (don't worry, it's painless) to reduce pain by increasing endorphins.
  • Ultrasound therapy (sound waves) to create heat, improve range of motion, relax muscles and improve circulation

Active Treatment may include a variety of exercises to strengthen core (abdominal), back, arm and leg muscles and increase flexibility.

Winter says, "Our best results come from addressing individual patients at the physical state they present in and working very gradually. We've seen a lot of success with developmental sequencing work, similar to the process a baby goes through in normal development.... rolling, crawling, balancing, sitting, standing. This helps reorganize the neurologic system to return it to more normal function. We address body pain and trigger points with soft tissue mobilization and manual stretching."     

Once patients have improved their overall physical condition, therapists help them keep their fitness plan in motion. They might recommend yoga, Pilates, cardiovascular and strength training options. They'll also work on fundamental body issues like posture, work-related body mechanics and sleep positions to help fibromyalgia patients function at their best.  

Does it Work?

In the face of a potentially disabling condition, physical therapists may get fibromyalgia patients back on their feet and moving in the right direction.

Studies show many patients report improvement in their symptoms and sense of well-being.


Physical therapy in the treatment of fibromyalgia.
Offenbächer M, Stucki G.
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Munich, Germany.

Move Forward - the website of the American Physical Therapy Association

Spine Universe
Physical Therapy for Fibromyalgia, author Kelly Rehan (3/09) for Spine Universe