Good Vibrations to Ease Pain

Vibration therapy has been shown to reduce the discomfort associated with fibromyalgia and athletic injuries. Now, studies show it may help with arthritis as well.

Although fibromyalgia doesn't affect the joints, it is a rheumatoid condition that, like arthritis, causes chronic pain and fatigue. Up until now, one of the few drug-free ways to treat pain in people with fibromyalgia has been an understandably unpopular method of inflicting pain of a different sort in order to cause a distraction from the pain of the disease.

Looking for a less painful way of achieving similar results, researchers at the University of Florida tried applying a motor that delivered high-frequency vibrations directly to the site of pain. It worked. Other research has found that vibration therapy, along with standard treatments, can help relieve back pain, reduce stiffness following athletic injuries and may help with neuropathic pain associated with diabetes.

Researchers don't know exactly why vibration decreases pain, but one theory is that vibrations interfere with the transmission of pain signals from the site of pain to the central nervous system where that pain is recognized. Experts who work with music therapy know that tonal vibrations have a positive physical and psychological impact on our perception of pain. One way this happens is that music activates the release of endorphins, the "feel-good" brain chemicals that also increase during exercise.

Before it can be considered a reliable treatment for arthritis or any other medical condition, however, vibration therapy needs some fine-tuning. Researchers are still working out which types of pain respond to vibration, the intensity of vibration required for various types of pain, and how long the effects can be expected to last.

Used incorrectly, strong vibrations can increase pain, as anyone with arthritis, back injury or other conditions that affect bones, muscles or joints can testify. Even the tonal vibrations of music can increase rather than decrease pain in some situations. On the other hand, many people swear by hand-held vibrators that can be placed near but not directly on a painful area of the body and still be effective. Before you invest in any type of vibration therapy, check with your doctor or other health care practitioner to see if a pulsating motion will help or hurt you.

Dr. Nathan Wei reviewed this article.


University of Florida: Vibration Helps Reduce Chronic Pain in Chronic Sufferes

Peer, KS, et al. “The Acute Effects of Local Vibration Therapy on Ankle Sprain and Hamstring Strain Injuries.”  The Physician and Sports Medicine Dec 2009:4(37);1-8. Web Sept 2011

Macalester College: Mechanisms by Which Music Therapy Operates

Arthritis Today: Vibration May Block Pain