Fibromyalgia - How hypnotherapy can help

The name of William Gowers is familiar to all medical students. Children with muscular dystrophy typically “walk” their hands up their legs to help in the process of standing up – a characteristic known as “Gowers’ sign”. Less well known is his 1904 description of another important condition, which he named “fibrositis”.

Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is the modern name given to this distinctive pattern of symptoms:

  • Pain - typically widespread (often whole-body) with tenderness of the soft tissues.
  • Fatigue - frequently described as ‘tired all the time’.
  • Insomnia - sleep no longer seems restorative.
  • Others - e.g. headaches, mood alteration, loss of concentration (sometimes called “fibrofog”).

We now know Gowers’ original assumption that the disease was caused by inflamed fibrous tissue was wrong. The muscles and tendons are quite normal. The problem lies in the central nervous system. Cells in the brain are somehow ‘tricked’ into behaving as if under attack from a virus. We can detect elevated levels of substance P (an important pain mediator) in the fluid surrounding the brain. Functional MRI scans confirm abnormal brain activity in response to physical stimuli. So here we have another example of a “central sensitising pain syndrome”. Hypersensitivity is, once again, the villain.

A study of five European countries showed that FMS affects 2.9 – 4.7% of the population. Females are affected five times more frequently than men. There is no single cause. Twin studies seem to show that heredity plays a small part. Patients characteristically report that some sort of shock/stress/trauma seemed to trigger symptoms. There is considerable overlap with other central sensitising pain syndromes (IBS, TMJ syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome etc.).

Hypnotherapy can contribute much to the management of this condition. Patients can learn to reduce the sensitivity of their pain response and modulate their natural tendency to hypervigilance in the face of their symptoms. In addition, hypnotherapy transforms sleep. There is a proven link between sleep deprivation and enhanced pain perception. Hypnotherapy can also improve mood and motivation.

The UK group FMAUK places “relaxation” as its number one treatment option.

Haanen studied 40 patients allocated to either physical therapy (daily massage) or hypnotherapy. The hypnotherapy patients reduced their pain by 35% (compared to 2% in the massage group). The positive effects persisted for six months. He concluded, “hypnotherapy may be useful in relieving symptoms in patients with refractory FM” (Journal of Rheumatology 1991).

My advice?

  • Educate your nearest and dearest.
  • Get help and advice from a specialist pain team.
  • Use hypnotherapy to reduce pain, improve sleep and enhance optimism for your future.

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