Vibration Therapy (and Other Exercise Options) for Fibromyalgia Patients

Fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes widespread pain, affects approximately five million people in the United States. The majority of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women, but men and children can be affected as well.

Symptoms usually begin in midlife, but can appear earlier. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Cognitive and memory problems (a.k.a. ďfibro fogĒ)
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Painful menstruation
  • Numbness and tingling of the extremities
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights

Getting the right diagnosis can take some time, since the conditionís most common symptomsópain and fatigueóare shared by many other conditions. A diagnosis usually involves ruling out other potential causes of symptoms.

Treating Fibromyalgia

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, and treatment is limited: Three drugs (pregabalin, duloxetine hydrocholoride, and milnacipran HCl) are currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat the condition, and other medications that have been approved for other conditions are sometimes prescribed to treat symptoms.

Lifestyle changes such as getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and exercise also help patients improve symptoms and their quality of life. However, while exercise has been shown in numerous clinical trials to provide important health benefits, the pain associated with activity (whether actual or anticipated) often prevents many fibromyalgia patients from starting or maintaining physical activity. Thatís where vibration therapy may play an important role.

What Is Vibration Therapy?

The treatment involves performing lower intensity exercise while standing (typically), sitting, or lying on a machine with a vibrating platform. As the platform shakes, the vibrations cause the muscles to contract and relax. The extremely fast muscle contractions are believed to help improve muscle strength without the need to add much resistance (from weights, for example).

The equipment was originally developed for Russian astronauts to prevent muscle and bone deterioration during space travel, but since the late 1990s it has been gaining momentum in the health and fitness fields. (You may remember Madonna singing praises of whole-body vibration as a way to keep her body toned.)

"Whole-body vibration has become popular in recent years and is most commonly used in exercise training, though it is also used in clinical research as a potential therapeutic tool for several chronic health conditions," explains Anthony S. Kaleth, PhD, FACSM, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. In a recent pilot study, Kaleth and his research team found that the therapy may reduce pain symptoms and help improve quality of life in people with fibromyalgia.

His team randomly assigned 24 women with fibromyalgia into three groups. One group performed lower-body resistance exercises with whole-body vibration twice a week; a second group performed the same lower-body resistance exercises without whole-body vibration, and a third group was used as a control. Before and immediately after the eight-week study period, study participants were assessed using the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, with their muscular strength assessed using a leg press.

While gains in muscular strength were not different between any of the groups, there was a significant improvement in perceived pain severity for the vibration group compared to the exercise-only and control groups.

Vibration therapy has been shown to be beneficial in those with osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinsonís disease. Although results from research studies vary, Kaleth says improvements in muscular strength, power, balance, and bone density, as well as reduced pain and fatigue, are some of the more commonly cited findings. People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may also benefit from vibration therapy, though "To my knowledge, there are no published studies evaluating the potential benefits of vibration training for those afflicted with RA," Kaleth says.

Where to Find Vibration Therapy

Vibration training devices are appearing with greater frequency in health clubs and fitness facilities, and several companies now manufacture home devices. But Kaleth suggests steering clear of these at this time: "Unfortunately, significant variability exists in the intensity of the vibrations produced by these manufacturers, and other factors, such as body weight, appear to affect how vibrations are delivered to the body as well," he explains. "Given the cost and lack of conclusive research evidence, itís difficult to recommend purchasing vibration platforms for home use at this time."

If youíre interested in trying vibration therapy, discuss treatment with your health care providers and ask them to recommend a facility with a machine.

Other Effective Exercises for People With Fibromyalgia

If you donít have access to vibration therapy, walking is one of the most common forms of exercise recommended for people afflicted with fibromyalgia. Itís low-impact, low-cost, and supported by research. Kalethís team recently reported that in a sample of 199 fibromyalgia patients, incremental increases on the order of 1,000 additional steps per day were associated with clinically significant improvements in physical function and quality of life for 12 weeks.

But keep in mind the frustration familiar to those with fibromyalgia: "While a particular activity or exercise may be tolerable one day, the same activity may be unbearable the next," says Kaleth. "Experimenting with different types of physical activity and gradually increasing the volume of exercise performed is important to help individuals maintain a regularly active lifestyle." In addition to walking, other forms of exercise have been shown to provide clinical benefit, including:

  • Cycling
  • Aquatic exercise
  • Nordic walking (with walking poles)
  • Yoga
  • Qi Gong (a Chinese health system that combines postures, breathing, and focus, according to the National Qigong Association)
  • Tíai Chi

Kaleth stresses the importance of having an exercise or physical activity program created with respect to your health/medical needs, goals, and interests, as well as any barriers you may face. Working with a team of health care professionals will help you find an exercise program that will best benefit you: "A multi-disciplinary approach to treatment that includes physicians, physical therapists, and clinical exercise physiologists is encouraged," he says.

Anthony S. Kaleth, PhD, FACSM, reviewed this article.

Sources

Anthony S. Kaleth. Email message to researcher. December 21, 2014.

"Living With Fibromyalgia, Drugs Approved to Manage Pain." US Food and Drug Administration. Page last updated January 20, 2015.

Alizadeh-Meghrazi, Milad, Jose Zariffa, Kei Masani, Milos R. Popovic, B Catherine Craven. "Variability of Vibrations Produced by Commercial Whole-Body Vibration Platforms." J Rehabil Med. 2014 46(9): 937-940.

"Questions and Answers About Fibromyalgia." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/National Institutes of Health. Accessed December 29, 2014.

Indiana University. "Vibration Exercise Study Finds Some Relief for Fibromyalgia." ScienceDaily. May 29, 2014.

Kaleth, Anthony S., Sandi DeSabatine, Dennis C. Ang. "Effects of Whole-Body Vibration Exercise on Physical Function and Pain Severity in Patients with Fibromyalgia." Presentation at the American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting. May 5, 2014.

Kaleth, Anthony S., James E. Slaven, Dennis C. Ang. "Does Increasing Steps Per Day Predict Improvement in Physical Function and Pain Interference in Adults with Fibromyalgia?" Arthritis Care Res. 2014 66(12):1887-94.

"What Is Qigong?" The National Qigong Association. Page accessed January 7, 2015.