Fibromyalgia Flares and Stress

Recently I have been witnessing many people having severe flares of their Fibromyalgia, both in in my office and my followers on social media who suffer from FMS. They have been writing to me and complaining about increased pain and fatigue. They are describing what can only be considered a severe “Fibro Flare”. People that were doing extremely well managing their conditions are now having major exacerbations. As a creator and administrator of The International Fibromyalgia Awareness Campaign on Facebook, I get messages from people that are expressing discouragement because they feel they are taking a step backwards in their healing. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is occurring but I do have some theories as to the general “uptick” in flares. I also have suggestions for those of you that are presently experiencing a flare so that you can get back on track and feel some relief.

chronic-painSo, what is happening and why so many flares? I have heard some people saying that maybe it is the weather. We did have an unusually hot summer and the humidity has been extremely high. Now, the fall seems to be starting very wet and cool. Many researchers have defined a definite link between climate and body chemistry so that may be one cause. If the neurotransmitters are disrupted due to environmental factors, then it will obviously bring on a flare. Also with the severe heat that we had, especially up in the North East and Mid Atlantic states, many people decided to not be as active as they once were. Hot and humid conditions, kept them inside in air conditioning and lack of exercise exacerbated many of the myofascial trigger points. We then had a brief period of some really nice mild weather and it is possible that this brought on a sort of backlash because people sometimes make up for lost time. I have patients that were relatively inactive over the summer that then suddenly got outside and started doing all sorts of heavy yard work when the heat finally broke. They were exerting muscles that definitely aren’t ready for that type of workload. It’s a strange but typical type of backlash. Now the weather has been cool and damp. The change in barometric pressure makes us feel stiff. Both trigger points and tender points act up as the cold constricts blood vessels and tightens muscles. So the weather is likely one factor to flares but I believe there is a much more obvious and apparent reason.

My belief based on personal observation and experience is that the largest percentage of flares I am now witnessing is arising from stress. We are being bombarded daily with news concerning the situations our country is facing. Many people are out of work and many more are in financial trouble with their debt beyond control. We have millions of people that are upside down in their mortgages and even more that have lost hope of ever being able to pull out of the spiral they feel themselves in. Every week, I have 2 or 3 more patients telling me that they were let go from a job that they have had for 20 years. People are extremely concerned about the economy and this worry seems to be creeping into every aspect of their lives. Even those that are fortunate enough to have not been hit personally by this mess often have a loved one that is going through it and they worry about them.

I have patients that were managing their Fibromyalgia very well with a combination of techniques and therapies such as exercise, manual body work, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture and nutritional supplementation. Now because of finances, they are unable to continue with many of these therapeutic modalities unless, as in the case of chiropractic, they are covered by their health insurance. The gains they had made bringing their body back into balance and finding relief has been slipping away. If you combine that with the fear of where they are headed with their accruing debt, you have a significant problem brewing. Stress plus a major change in lifestyle and therapeutic modalities equals a flare. Patients that were doing terrific and that I hadn’t seen in months or some cases even years have been calling for appointments. Most of them, when questioned, are expressing that they are under extreme stress. I have had patients say to me that they feel like they are in a “pressure cooker”. It is obvious that the mind body connection in these cases is the key.

stressed-manI want to emphasize now that just because I am saying there is a stress factor responsible for many of the recent flares I am seeing does not mean that Fibromyalgia is a psychological or emotional condition. Fibro is not “in the mind” but it certainly is “in the brain”. It is partly a condition of neurotransmitter imbalance that can be greatly exacerbated when stress comes into play. An expression I often use in the office “psychology becomes physiology” describes this phenomenon really well. When we are stressed, especially for extended periods of time, the body reacts and chemical changes occur. Most of us have heard of “fight or flight” where the adrenal glands release adrenaline in a sudden burst due to a severe stressor. The story that comes to mind is of that little woman who lifted the car off of her son when the jack slipped and he became trapped. That adrenaline release can give someone the extra boost needed to run faster, and temporarily become stronger or perform better. It is protective and the body’s way of dealing with a dangerous situation. The problem arises when the stress factors that alert the adrenals and other glands become chronic and don’t go away. It is then that the chemicals produced by the body get out of control and turn from productive to destructive. These chemicals do even more damage when there is no release for them and no way for them to burn off or balance out.

Fibromyalgia research has shown the importance of specific endocrine glands and the hormones they release with the overall neurotransmitter balance of the body. The 3 endocrine glands that Fibro patients should be most interested in are the Adrenals, Pituitary and Hypothalamus. This is better known as the HPA axis and is directly related to the secretion of numerous chemicals that control the transmission of nerve impulses along with many other bodily functions. When stress throws these glands into and imbalance the result is often severe dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system causing an array of symptoms. This is the main connection between stress and Fibromyalgia and why the stress component needs to be addressed.

OK so what can we do for the stresses that we are facing? Well, for some of the stresses, there may be no immediate fix. Certainly, if someone is facing bankruptcy or losing their home, a cure to their financial mess may not be fast or easy. Although the situation may persist and may not be immediately remediable, there are still techniques we can use to help balance out the overall levels of stress hormones. Meditation is a very valuable tool that most everyone can do. Even those people that feel that they have no clue how to perform meditation can purchase CDs and listen to some guided imagery and meditative programs. There are countless meditative CDs available online at sites such as Amazon and in some websites people can even listen to samples before buying. There are also classes in yoga offered at most YMCAs and local health clubs that can offer a great form of not only relaxation but also stretching. A light easy walk for 20 minutes can also help to reduce stress and help reverse the downward spiral caused by a cascading imbalance of neurochemicals. Even the simplest act of playing soothing music throughout the day can help reduce stress. Other stress reducing techniques should also be considered and can greatly help keep your stress hormones under control. They include techniques and practices such as Ti Chi, Chi Gong and of course prayer.

meditation1When the overall situation we face can’t be immediately solved then we need to look at ways to offset or balance the stress with relaxation techniques. By doing so, the stress we face will become more manageable and subsequently the chemical fluctuations will be less dramatic. I have witnessed many patients turn their health around and improve the overall quality of their lives through simple meditative or relaxation techniques. For me, personally, it has been one of the most important factors to find balance and wellness. Please remember that flares will occur. We can’t have control over everything that happens in our lives. We can, however, control how we respond to them. Please don’t look at a flare as defeat. It is really a temporary condition and can be reversed much faster if we learn how to control our emotional response to it.