Fibromyalgia—in a word—hurts. To the 5 million-plus sufferers who know this condition intimately, it is a case of Tolstoy’s “every happy family is alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” when it comes to symptoms, presentation, and effects on quality of life.
The common link, of course, is muscle pain. Yet what happens next (be it depression, anxiety, poor sleep, diminished relationships, or any other comorbidity) is what makes each individual’s experience different and makes each case such a challenge to treat.
My own experience in clinic and with Chinese tui na style Asian bodywork therapy clients has given me a tremendous appreciation for what these patients suffer on so many levels. Each time I treat a fibromyalgia patient, it becomes more and more clear to me that Chinese medical practices have much to give to this population. For me, when I finish a bodywork session and the person looks at me and says, “I’m not in pain any more” I see the emotion in their eyes and it genuinely touches my heart. I love working with these patients, I really do.
Do you know much about Chinese medicine? It’s not just needles and maybe some herbal formulas. Bodywork therapy (tui na) and mind-body exercise (tai chi, qi gong) are also important aspects of this holistic philosophy and practice of healthy and balanced living. It the fruit of an ancient tradition with a history that goes back over the course of more than three thousand years. Today we might simply refer to these healing arts as expressions of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) without thinking too much about how ancient their origins are. Truly, though, Chinese medical roots are firmly planted in a centuries-old soil. A practitioner of any form of Asian medicine today stands on the shoulders of giants.
For fibromyalgia relief, in fact, acupuncture is not the only remedy that we in Chinese medicine have to offer a patient. Recent studies convincingly demonstrate that a venerable Chinese mind-body exercise, tai chi, can be helpful in ameliorating pain, anxiety, and muscle weakness in fibromyalgia sufferers. Tai chi has its origins in martial arts and its foundation in Chinese philosophical thought. The movements of tai chi are effected through focus, leverage, and disciplined repetition. “A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia,” which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, outlines a research study of the effects of tai chi on this population and found that pain level, sleep, quality of life, and depression levels all improved after following a prescribed regimen of tai chi classes. The authors of this study note that a sustained tai chi practice can help to reduce fear of pain, it can break the pain cycle, and it can increase muscle strength. Tai chi can also alter neuroendocrine and immune function, thereby promoting better general health in such patients. The mindful breathing and meditative aspects of the practice also promote mental clarity and calmness according to this study.
Acupuncture, for its part, certainly can change the course of the disease though cultural attitudes may play a role in its efficacy. The findings of a group of Spanish researchers appear in an article by the National Pain Report and comments beneath it were mixed; some people had had negative experiences with acupuncture and others defended it. The original study, however, is interesting to me as a former Spanish professor who has lived in Spain. The subjects were fibromyalgia patients in that country and Spaniards tend to accept Chinese medicine a little more than, perhaps, Americans do (unless you’re in Austin or some other city with a lot of practitioners). In fact, Barcelona will soon have the largest traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) hospital in Europe following an agreement signed by the Catalan government and Beijing in February 2016. The researchers’ findings indicate that acupuncture affords notable pain relief to fibromyalgia patients and is worthy of further study. I hope, as an American who will practice in this country, that acupuncture as performed by licensed acupuncturists will become more and more mainstream and that we, too, will reproduce such studies. What I can say for sure based on what I have experienced thus far, though, is that acupuncture has been tremendously beneficial for the fibromyalgia patients that we see in our clinics at my school. I am sure that colleagues far and wide can say the same regarding their own clinical experiences.
For me, though, it is the tui na therapy that really seems to make the most immediately visible difference for my fibromyalgia patients. When I am in student clinic, I perform acupuncture treatments and I am able to prescribe herbs under the direction of the clinical supervisor. I have seen how acupuncture and herbal treatments can ease pain, soothe anxiety, and reduce insomnia in these cases. In my own practice as an AOBTA-CP Asian bodywork therapist, of course, what I offer is Chinese tui na style bodywork and therein I have a found a very useful way to ease the muscle pain and anxiety associated with fibromyalgia. And, while there aren’t pubmed studies in support of tui na, there is advocacy for this modality in pain management studies. Certainly, my own experience supports the assertion that yes, tui na does wonders for fibromyalgia sufferers. (If you have never heard of this venerable Chinese healing practice, do look at my essay, “What is tui na?” but—in brief—this is a Chinese modality that is somewhat akin to massage).
Myself, I dearly love muscles and bones, and so I make the tactile equivalent of a polite request when I approach the body—I know that these are tender muscles and I reckon that the person is wary of feeling even more hurt. In fact, I have had patients tell me that they went for a massage and ended up in terrible pain afterward. But I tell them that what I will do is different, and I promise that I will move with delicacy and tact until I can feel an invitation from the trigger areas. I also tend to work around the tender spots. My theory is that if I can gently draw out energy of the knot or trigger point, rather than go straight to it, then I’m also drawing attention and energy away from what hurts. This requires fine “listening hands” (I have them) and good capacity to see with the hands (I can do that too; in fact, I spend much of the bodywork session with my eyes shut so that my entire focus is on the feelings that my hands experience). Different techniques at my disposal will warm the body or soothe and thereby cool it. When I work up and down the spine with finesse and dedication, nerves and impulses are reset. Pained knots get drawn out and gentled. I have had people get off the table and hug me and tell me that they are no longer in pain. And yes, the pain will return—fibromyalgia doesn’t let go its grasp that easily and I make no claims of being able to cure anyone—but to help someone to be pain-free for a few days or a week or two or even for a month…that’s exciting and I have seen it happen.
If you suffer from fibromyalgia, do consider trying Chinese medicine. If you don’t find a practitioner nearby, see if there is an acupuncture school near you. You can call them and see about tai chi classes and also ask about their student and professional clinics. And yes, it can be challenging to find a tui na practitioner unless you are in California or on the East coast. But do not despair! Though I am here in Austin, TX, and you may be far away, if you want to find a tui na practitioner and can’t, either I can help you or the AOBTA, our certifying body, can. I had someone in Canada write to me on Facebook and I found a practitioner for her—it took some digging, but I found someone. I will do my best for you, too, if you need help to find a referral. Fibromyalgia is exhausting and painful. Chinese therapies when performed by a licensed acupuncturist and/or a correctly trained and duly certified bodywork therapist can make a difference.
Try it, you’ll see!
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog, keep up with my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.