Stress reduction

When a person in pain experiences stress, they feel more pain.  In people with fibromyalgia, stress pathways seem to criss-cross pain-processing pathways in the brain. In other words, stress can sometimes stimulate more un­pleas­ant pain. In a recent study funded by the Arthritis Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Laur­ence A. Bradley, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and his colleagues compared pain perception and neurological responses of 16 women with fibromyalgia to 19 healthy women as they revisited stressful personal events, like a divorce or the death of a loved one.

To measure pain responses, the researchers applied heat to the women’s forearms. Even though all the women thought about equally stressful events, the fibromyalgia patients reported higher levels of pain unpleasantness from the heat, and their brain scans showed more activity in the parts of the brain that process pain magnitude, compared to healthy controls.

“Teaching people to better cope with stressors may reduce the impact of those stressors on the perception of the unpleasantness they feel,” Bradley suggests. 

Lifestyle adaptation

Kristin Ohlson, 53, a writer from Cleveland, developed fibromyalgia 10 years ago during a time of great job and personal stress. “I sat crunched up in a chair at my desk a lot and developed an intense pain in my lower back,” she recalls. The excruciating pain soon radiated throughout her body, and she had trouble sleeping. To improve her sleep, she bought a memory foam mattress topper, which helps cushion her body at night. She also padded her office chair. “I sit on an egg crate cushion,” she says. “I’m just careful about hard surfaces.”

“You can live really well with a chronic illness or disability,” says McKiernan. “It’s all about learning how to manage what’s going on and rearranging your life a little bit – or sometimes a lot.”

“I recognized that my allergies and reactions to chemicals were really tied into my fibromyalgia, so I’ve reduced the chemical load in my life,” she says. She changed to scent-free cleaning and personal care products. She avoids cigarette smoke altogether.

It helps to look at lifestyle adaptations in fibromyalgia with acceptance, rather than embarrassment, McKiernan says. “Prescribing glasses – that’s easy – people don’t even think of glasses as an adaptive device, but they are.” No one needs to apologize for wearing glasses, she says, and no one should have to apologize for making accommodations for fibromyalgia.

McKiernan even changed careers to help manage her condition. Before fibromyalgia, McKiernan worked as a chef, but the job entailed long hours at the chopping block and little control over her environment. People wearing perfume, for example, would visit the restaurant, which would set off McKiernan’s chemical sensitivities. Now she makes a living pet sitting, dog walking and teaching performance classes to students who know in advance to come to the studio scent-free.