Fibromyalgia & Running
Most people, if not all, have experienced pain at some point in their lives. The symptom comes in many forms and can affect our daily activities. Unfortunately there are conditions that create worse pain than others, and in some cases the pain is constant and may turn into a chronic issue. Chronic pain can develop from several conditions, such as residual effects from a surgery or injury, a gradual onset of overuse musculoskeletal problems, or nerve-related cases. The intensity of pain can fluctuate depending on the amount of activity, positioning, time of day, and tolerance to the pain itself. The key to getting through our daily lives with chronic or constant pain is to rely on pain management strategies, and often times all activities become planned around the pain.
One condition that is poorly understood is fibromyalgia, which is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain along with sleep disturbances, tenderness in the muscles, stiffness in joints, and fatigue. Although there still is not an exact known cause of fibromyalgia, research shows it may be triggered by stress, trauma, surgery, or infection in the body. Many cases do not have an underlying cause and the symptoms gradually accumulate over time. This disorder is more common in women than men, and is usually diagnosed based on the presence of specific tender points in the body. Over time, people affected with this condition become less tolerant to pain due to the change in the brain’s chemistry from the repeated bouts of pain. Basically, the body becomes more sensitive to pain signals and causes a person to overreact to the sensation. Fibromyalgia is not related to activity levels; therefore highly active individuals are just as likely to develop this condition as the sedentary population.
Running with Fibromyalgia
Pain is a common occurrence in runners, and usually a symptom that is pushed through to get to the finish line. Of course, the smart thing to do when in pain is scale back the running and pay attention to the cause. Muscle pain in the form of soreness is rather normal when training, but should never continue increasing unless you are constantly changing your routine and adding high intensity workouts every day. Fibromyalgia pain occurs on both sides of the body almost equally and has specific tender points such as behind the head, upper shoulders, outer hip, gluteal muscles, and the knees. Moderate to high intensity exercise will usually make symptoms worse, and in most cases during severe episodes the pain may leave a person bedridden.
For runners or other athletes who are experiencing muscle pain that worsens with increased activity, and is accompanied by fatigue, stiffness, and restless sleep, it may be a good idea to get evaluated for a specific pain syndrome such as fibromyalgia. Although there is no cure for this condition, the sooner you can get diagnosed, the sooner you can understand your body’s limitations and how to manage the pain in order to continue running. There is a great deal of information out there that states people with fibromyalgia can never run or perform much exercise, but that is not the case if you learn how to manage your episodes of pain with your training. Much of the ability to run will stem from a person’s level of pain tolerance, so training levels can vary from one individual to another.
By the time many affected by fibromyalgia reach a diagnosis and prescribed treatment, they are already frustrated with their pain and inability to cope with their daily activities. Avid runners are most likely one of the more frustrated groups due to the negative impact this condition has on their training programs. The majority of cases will be prescribed medication for pain, anxiety, depression, sleep and any other present symptoms. Most of the time over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications do not work very well with this type of pain since inflammation is normally not associated with the tender points in fibromyalgia. It may be helpful to try non-medicated treatment strategies for several weeks or months before relying on drugs for management.
Research has shown that exercise up to moderate intensities is extremely helpful in managing fibromyalgia symptoms. Not only does it aid in circulating blood to the muscles to relieve tightness and stiffness in joints, but it also assists with managing stress levels, which is a common cause of anxiety in those affected. Although it is recommended to keep exercise to moderate intensity, it is possible to perform vigorous intensity exercise depending on pain tolerance. Symptoms worsen as intensity increases, but studies have shown that there are many individuals who can tolerate this increase. Those who have been active before being diagnosed are more likely to be able to keep up with most of their previous training intensity with the incorporation of more rest breaks and modifications. Alternative forms of exercise that may be useful to complement running are tai chi, yoga, pilates, and swimming.
Understanding the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia is important to runners, especially those who train for marathons and ultrarunning. Hard training develops a good amount of soreness and as mentioned above, runners tend to push through this soreness. It takes experience to learn which pain is okay to push through and which to pay more attention to. The important differentiation is the other symptoms that accompany the pain in fibromyalgia. If you are experiencing tender points in the muscles on both sides of the body, sleep problems, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating, it is important to seek medical advice. Due to the unknown causes of fibromyalgia, there is no cure, but the sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can develop a pain management strategy that works for you and your training program. Keep in mind that it is still possible to continue running and stay in shape with fibromyalgia.