Can resistance training help treat Fibromyalgia?

2kg dumbbell woman with mint nails

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a condition that is characterised by chronic pain, somatosensory symptoms (such as pain, pressure and warmth or coldness), and various other symptoms. It is a condition that is starting to be addressed more and more by holistic health practitioners, and you’ve likely heard about it, or scrolled past it when looking through holistic health websites, blogs and the like.  There is no known cause for Fibromyalgia, however, there are a lot of hypotheses which are continuing to be tested. Currently, Fibromyalgia is generally recognised as a “syndrome”, that is a collection of symptoms that often occur together, rather than a disease or illness with one root cause, such as a pathogen, infection, or injury. It is generally a diagnosis of exclusion, where all other possible causes for the symptoms must be ruled out, and then the GP or specialist, such as a rheumatologist will likely check for pain in specific “tender points” around the body, including the neck, chest, shoulders, back, and sides of hips.

I was recently diagnosed with this condition, but just like for many other Fibromyalgics, it’s just a label to group together what has been going on in my body for a long time. While it is difficult to really understand the true prevalence of Fibromyalgia, partly because it is so difficult to diagnose, there appears to be a significantly higher prevalence in Western societies compared to the rest of the world. Along with some other reasons, which I may explain in future posts, this has led me to see Fibromyalgia as something that is heavily related to lifestyle factors, rather than simply genetics. As a result, I am confident that with the right treatments and the right management, this is something that can be treated pretty effectively, if not completely, through lifestyle changes.

A key component of my treatment that has been emphasised by my specialists, physios, acupuncturist and other health professionals has been the important of movement, particularly resistance training. So I decided to have a little look around at the scientific basis for this, and thought I would share it with you all…

What does the Science Say?

A 2013 review by Busch, Webber, Richards et al. (click here for original) sought to take into account the current research on resistance training and Fibromyalgia in order to establish whether this form of exercise could be considered effective in the treatment of the condition. They found five studies on the topic, collectively with 219 female fibromyalgia patients. Ninety-five of these patients were assigned to resistance training programmes, while the rest remained a “control” group, against whom the intervention group (those doing resistance training) could be monitored. These groups were then monitored, as the resistance training groups completed exercises, such as free weights and bodyweight exercises three times a week for 16-21 weeks.

At the end of the trial period, women who did participate in resistance training rated their overall well being as well as their physical health higher than did those who did not participate in the training. They were also stronger, and reported less pain, as well as four less tender points than those who did not train. More specifically:

-On a scale of 0-100, women who trained rated their overall well being as 25 units better, while women who did not train rated only 8 units better. Therefore, the resistance training group experienced an increase of 17 units better than the non-training group.

-On the same scale, resistance training women rated their physical function 8 units better, while those who did not train rated it only two units better.

– Women who did resistance training reported two fewer active tender points out of 18 than women who did not do resistance training at the end of the study than at the beginning. A tender point is identified as active when pressure of 4 kg is perceived as painful.

– While women who didn’t train experienced a decrease of two fewer active tender points, those who trained reported four fewer.

-At the end of the 16-21 weeks, women who did not participate in resistance training were able to lift on average 1kg more than at the beginning, while those who did resistance training were able to lift on average 28kg more than they could at the beginning.

It is important to note that this review only included female fibromyalgia patients. As fibromyalgia affects significantly more women than men, it is often easier for scientific studies and trials to be run on women rather than on men. Therefore, these results can not be assumed to be correct for men as well. It should also be noted that this review only found five research papers to utilise, and the sample size is relatively small. Therefore, while this information is useful and does back up the anecdotal evidence that strength training can help manage fibromyalgia symptoms, it is not conclusive evidence.

Busch AJ, Webber SC, Richards RS, Bidonde J, Schachter CL, Schafer LA, Danyliw A, Sawant A, Dal Bello-Haas V, Rader T, Overend TJ. Resistance exercise training for fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD010884. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010884.

The above review can be found here, and conveniently includes a breakdown in simple non-scientific language for those who want to go back to the source. Please note that this is just my own interpretation of the research, I am not a specialist or an expert on Fibromyalgia, I’m just trying to share information that may be of help to others 🙂

I will endeavour to put up some sample resistance training routines and exercises you can try over the next few weeks, when I manage to find someone to film them for me!

🙂 K


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