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Understanding Fibromyalgia: A medical mystery

Date Posted: 2007-01-25

During the week following her 36th birthday, Melissa developed an especially severe sore throat. She remembers thinking that her illness was punishment for the rambunctious birthday party she threw a few days earlier.

One week later, despite aggressive self-treatment, Melissa’s symptoms persisted and she sought medical care.

Her family doctor did a throat culture and prescribed an antibiotic and saline gargles. Convinced that the medication made her worse, Melissa returned to her doctor after three days. With the throat culture negative for streptococcus, the doctor suggested she stop the antibiotics and start taking pain killers, reassuring her that her symptoms would abate in a few days.

That was four years ago. At age 40, Melissa’s symptoms still have not gone away! In fact, her recurrent sore throat is now the least of her symptoms. Profound fatigue, tender muscles, and almost-daily headaches greatly restrict her physical activities.

Poor sleep quality ensures the persistence of her physical symptoms. Emotionally, she is distraught.

Socially, she feels isolated and is unemployed. This once-healthy and well-adjusted certified public accountant is now a veteran of hundreds of doctor visits and dozens of medications including antihistamines, decongestants, anti-inflammatory drugs, pain killers, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants.

Melissa was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an enigmatic illness that has baffled doctors and medical researchers for many years. Experts speculate that the syndrome might be triggered by infections, physical trauma, or emotional stress—but these links have not been conclusively determined. Sufferers report a laundry list of symptoms that include muscle aches and stiffness, trigger points, chronic fatigue, soft tissue swelling, poor circulation, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep quality. Fibromyalgia shares some of the same symptoms as chronic fatigue syndrome, another mysterious illness. Some authorities believe that both conditions are the same disease but with different clinical features.

Unfortunately, there are no laboratory tests to identify fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. And because the symptoms are so varied and life-altering, a typical doctor’s visit (which averages 15 minutes) is not enough time to educate, diagnose, and treat fibromyalgia sufferers. Hundreds of different medications have been prescribed to treat the symptoms, but with only modest success. To date, the most successful treatment for fibromyalgia involves an individualized program of medical nutrition therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, massage therapy, and graded physical activity delivered via a multidisciplinary healthcare team over multiple visits (e.g., six or more one-hour visits).

Not too long ago, Melissa heard of a six-week, comprehensive treatment program in an out-of-state clinic that boasts good results. Determined and desperate, she signed up for the program. She enjoyed the one-hour personalized sessions that were a combination of education and therapy.

Today, Melissa is well on her way to reclaiming her life. Already, she has regained a fair amount of physical mobility and self-esteem and is starting to experience a dramatic reduction in muscle pain and poor sleep.

A similar program is about to begin on Okinawa. The Okinawa Wellness Teaching Center (WTC) will roll out its fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue recuperation program in late January. The program will feature a six-week, comprehensive management plan that includes fibromyalgia education, chiropractic adjustments, Thai massages, nutrition education, behavioral modification, stress management, and physical activity education. For more information, call WTC at 921-7430 or e-mail okiwellnessdoc@yahoo.com.

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