Modify Your Movements for Fibromyalgia Relief
Do everyday activities bring on fibromyalgia pain? Rethinking the way you move can make repetitive motions easier.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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For people living with fibromyalgia, the everyday motions so many of us take for granted, such as typing or vacuuming, can be excruciating.
“In fibromyalgia, pain is a relative term — when someone with fibromyalgia experiences a flare-up, any activity is painful,” says Renee Taylor, PhD, a professor of occupational therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago who treats people with fibromyalgia. And when someone living with fibromyalgia goes through the same motion over and over again throughout the day, the fibromyalgia pain gets repeated as well.
The reason you feel more pain than people without fibromyalgia has to do with your brain chemistry. “In fibromyalgia, the neurotransmitters in the brain are out of balance, which makes the whole body hypersensitive — people with fibromyalgia pick up pain signals they normally would not be picking up,” says Jeanne L. Melvin, MS, OTR, an occupational therapist who works with fibromyalgia patients in Santa Monica, Calif. So something that may cause a minor discomfort to someone else, such as a piece of clothing rubbing against skin or a slightly tight tendon, may scream at you, she says.
To Help Fibromyalgia, Take It Easy
Part of the issue with fibromyalgia pain associated with repetitive motion is speed. “We tend to tackle repetitive tasks, such as wiping off a counter top, relatively quickly to get them finished, [but] this fast action is more demanding to a person with fibromyalgia than non-repetitive action,” Melvin says. If you wiped down the counter slowly, with broad strokes, it would be less taxing.
Melvin adds that repetitive motions that involve pushing and gripping at the same time, such as pushing a shopping cart or vacuuming, are particularly painful when you have fibromyalgia. “These motions cause a flexion force on one side of a joint and an extension force on the other, which creates a double-bind,” she explains. “In addition, activities that involve reaching in front or to the side increase the stress force on the elbow and shoulder.”
Fibromyalgia Pain Relievers: How to Modify Your Movements
Once you’re aware of the association between repetitive motion and fibromyalgia pain, the next step is to make needed adjustments to help yourself feel better. The more you do to take control of your fibromyalgia symptoms, the better.
“The best advice I can offer my clients living with fibromyalgia is to practice correct ergonomics and use energy-conservation strategies, particularly during a flare-up,” Taylor says. “Avoid some of the more repetitive motions during a fibromyalgia flare if you can, and use assistive devices, such as voice-activated typing software, as much as you can. To help ease fibromyalgia pain, the best movement is gentle movement — move in a heated swimming pool or walk slowly on a soft but firm surface, such as a treadmill.”
Here are specific actions you can take to ease fibromyalgia symptoms related to repetitive motion:
Keep your elbows close to your body.“Almost everyone with fibromyalgia experiences neck and shoulder pain, and when they clean a window, type, or wash dishes, this pain is at its worst,” Melvin says. To ease the discomfort, Melvin recommends standing closer to the sink, desk, or table where you are working so your elbows are closer to your sides and you aren’t reaching as far. “Same thing goes for when you are pushing a mop or vacuum — stand as close to it as possible, and try to keep your elbow close to your side,” she says.
Stretch twice a day.“If you have fibromyalgia, you should engage in a full-body stretching program two times a day,” Melvin says. Why? “When you feel discomfort from fibromyalgia, you tend to avoid using your muscles because they hurt," she says. "As a result, those muscles get stiff and tight and don’t process oxygen well." However, because muscles require sufficient oxygen to do their job, stretching a muscle to its full length will bring necessary blood and oxygen into muscle cells, she explains. To get the best instruction on how to properly stretch at home, without increasing pain or causing a flare, Melvin suggests consulting with a physical therapist.
Strike the right movement balance.“People have very different reactions to fibromyalgia pain — some become very fearful of pain and injury and avoid any movements that hurt, and others will push themselves too hard by staying out late with friends or shopping all day at the mall,” Melvin says, noting that neither extreme is healthy when living with fibromyalgia. The key is to stay active and exercise regularly, yet recognize and respect your limits. “If you know you will be in bed for two days after doing something, don’t do it,” she says.
Get help for sleep issues.Because of the neurotransmitter imbalance associated with the condition, many people living with fibromyalgia have trouble sleeping or getting restorative sleep, which can worsen fibromyalgia pain. “You can sleep 8 hours, but if you are not getting restorative sleep, your pain level won’t change,” Melvin says. She admits that there are no easy solutions for fibromyalgia-related sleep problems, but the answer shouldn’t involve sleeping pills. “They don’t provide deep sleep, and they can cause daytime fatigue and cognitive impairment,” she explains. Instead, talk with your health care professional about natural sleep remedies that may work for you.
Create the right workspace.If you sit for 8 hours behind a desk most days, you’ll want to be sure your sitting position is as comfortable as possible. Melvin says that one way to do this is with a desk chair with adjustable arms. “The concept is that, in between typing, you will be able to rest your arms and relax your neck and shoulder muscles that may be sore and tired from fibromyalgia,” she says. “If your chair doesn’t have arms, you will have tension in your neck muscles all the way through the sitting process.”
Keep things at eye level.“If your neck is sore, propping up reading materials so your neck is at a neutral position will help ease stress on the neck and shoulders and resulting fibromyalgia pain,” Melvin says.
Finally, remember that no two people living with fibromyalgia are alike. Part of the key to easing fibromyalgia pain associated with repetitive motion and fibromyalgia pain in general is to remain as flexible as possible, both physically and mentally.
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