Fibromyalgia affects up to 10 million Americans. The symptoms, which include widespread chronic pain, can be debilitating. If you or a loved one suffers from fibromyalgia, a weighted blanket may help ease your symptoms, reduce anxiety and depression, and help you enjoy an active lifestyle again.
If you suffer from fibromyalgia, there are ways to ease your symptoms and reclaim your health.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Despite being the second most common health condition affecting the bones and muscles, fibromyalgia is still widely misunderstood — even in the medical community. Unfortunately, it’s common for those with fibromyalgia to suffer for years before receiving a diagnosis. The American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA) reports that 90 percent of fibromyalgia sufferers are women.
Because the disease disproportionately affects women, many fibromyalgia patients report being dismissed or ignored by their medical providers. Some health experts refer to this phenomenon as a “gender pain gap.” Tiffany Vance-Huffman at Fibromyalgia Treating quotes Siobhan Fenton at The Independent: “This gender pain gap has a number of serious and far-reaching implications; including that women in acute pain are left to suffer for longer in hospitals, they are more likely to be misdiagnosed with mental health problems due to misogynistic stereotypes that women are ‘emotional’ even when clinical results show their pain is real and they are consistently allocated less time than male patients by hospital staff…”
How Fibromyalgia Impacts Daily Life
For many fibromyalgia patients — particularly women — being doubted or disbelieved simply adds insult to injury when dealing with the life-changing symptoms of a chronic pain disease. It doesn’t help that fibromyalgia is inherently difficult to diagnose.
According to WebMD, part of what makes fibromyalgia so challenging to diagnose is its similarity to several other related conditions, including osteoarthritis, bursitis, and tendinitis. However, these conditions tend to affect a specific area of the body, whereas fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain and stiffness. Sadly, almost 70 percent of people with fibromyalgia remain undiagnosed. Additionally, it takes an average of five years from the onset of symptoms for patients to receive a fibromyalgia diagnosis.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia include gastrointestinal issues, headaches, sensitivity to hot and cold, frequent urination, numbness or tingling in the extremities, and a dry mouth, nose, and eyes. It’s also common for sufferers to experience various mental health symptoms, including brain fog (sometimes called “fibro fog”) as well as anxiety and depression. Additionally, fibromyalgia and fatigue tend to go hand in hand, with many sufferers reporting chronic tiredness and insomnia — even after a full night’s sleep.
There are no single test doctors can use to diagnose fibromyalgia. Rather, arriving at diagnosis usually involves a process of elimination to rule out other conditions. Doctors also “use a two-part scoring system to measure how widespread your pain has been and how much your symptoms affect your daily life.” Many patients experience intense discomfort at various “pain points” throughout the body. Doctors can also diagnose fibromyalgia when a patient feels pain at 11 or more of 18 identified fibromyalgia pain points.
Because it’s primarily a pain disease, fibromyalgia can take a toll on a sufferer’s life. When you feel constantly tired and achy, it’s often hard to enjoy hobbies and time with loved ones. The good news is that relief and recovery are possible. Furthermore, a growing number of fibromyalgia patients are successfully managing their symptoms without prescription drugs or over-the-counter painkillers.
What Are the Treatments for Fibromyalgia?
Like other chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia has no cure. While certain pharmaceuticals may help manage the symptoms, patients frequently report mixed results. Worse, the side effects caused by many fibromyalgia drugs are often just as bad as the pain and stiffness associated with the condition itself. As Dr. Eduardo Fraifeld, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, told Health.com, “The drug with no side effects is only in our imagination.”
Some of the more common side effects associated with fibromyalgia drugs include dizziness, nausea, fatigue, hypertension, dry mouth, and weight gain. Ironically, many of the side effects linked to the prescription drugs used to treat fibromyalgia are also symptoms associated with the condition. As a result, many fibromyalgia patients become frustrated with prescription treatment and turn to drug-free ways to manage their illness.
According to Dr. Josh Axe, natural, pharmaceutical-free fibromyalgia treatments include a healthy diet, an increase in certain vitamins, the use of essential oils, and lifestyle changes that incorporate a regular exercise routine.
An increase in serotonin has also been linked to a reduction in fibromyalgia symptoms. Adrienne Dellwo at Verywell reports, “A growing pool of research suggests that people with fibromyalgia (FMS) may have low levels of serotonin or low serotonin activity.” (Emphasis in original.) When a person has low serotonin, they can experience things like:
- Changes in appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Fatigue even after adequate sleep
- Hot flashes and temperature imbalances
- Muscle cramps
- Low libido
- Problems with the bowel and bladder
- Anxiety and depression
Researchers believe that by boosting serotonin, fibromyalgia sufferers may experience a reduction in these symptoms.
5 Ways a Weighted Blanket May Help Ease Fibromyalgia Symptoms
One of the easiest ways to increase serotonin may be using a weighted blanket. However, that’s not the only reason you should consider using one if you have fibromyalgia.
Here are five ways a weighted blanket may provide much-needed relief to the millions of fibromyalgia patients looking for techniques to reduce the fatigue and pain that make this such a debilitating disease.
Serotonin is an important chemical in the body. As Healthline reports, “Serotonin impacts every part of your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It’s the chemical that helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting.” With a description like that, it’s easy to see why the right serotonin levels are critical to optimal health.
Unfortunately for fibromyalgia sufferers, serotonin is often in short supply. Fortunately, there are ways to improve serotonin levels naturally. According to a study published in Alternative Medicine Review, “Serotonin substrate supplementation, via L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and somatic pains in a variety of patient cohorts.”
Another study reports that “grounding” patients while they sleep — a process that involves applying gentle pressure through the use of a weighted blanket — reduced cortisol (the stress hormone) and boosted serotonin levels in patients’ saliva. With higher serotonin levels, fibromyalgia patients may experience less fatigue and improved energy levels.
As any fibromyalgia patient will tell you, chronic fatigue is one of the most debilitating symptoms of the disease. As WebMD notes, “Severe fatigue — more than just being tired — affects up to 4 out of 5 people with fibromyalgia. It often goes hand-in-hand with sleepless nights. Together, they leave you drained and exhausted.”
This kind of wrenching fatigue can affect just about every part of your life. If you’re a parent, it can make keeping up with your children almost impossible. If you’re looking to advance your career, it can hold you back at work. And if you’re in school, persistent fatigue can make it tough to concentrate. Even basic everyday tasks like grocery shopping or enjoying dinner with friends can be grueling.
If your fibromyalgia involves insomnia and chronic fatigue, a weighted blanket may help you fall asleep faster and experience more restorative sleep. In the study that found an increase in serotonin levels in patients who used a weighted blanket, researchers also found “measurable improvements in diurnal cortisol profiles...with cortisol levels significantly reduced during night-time sleep.” The results of the study indicated that “grounding the human body to earth [with a weighted blanket] during sleep improves sleep and reduces pain and stress.”
Ease Anxiety and Depression
When you have fibromyalgia, your experience with anxiety and depression can feel a bit like a vicious circle. Fibromyalgia has been shown to increase anxiety and depression, which can in turn cause sufferers to feel more anxious and depressed about their health. The more anxiety and depression you experience, the more difficult it is to pull yourself away from these feelings.
Using a weighted blanket may help ease troublesome symptoms and break the cycle of anxiety and depression in patients with fibromyalgia. A study published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health found that 63 percent of adults who used a 30-pound weighted blanket felt lower anxiety levels. Additionally, 78 percent of study participants “preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.”
One of the ways weighted blankets work is by promoting gentle pressure through deep pressure stimulation (DPS). As the researchers noted, “One of the qualities offered by the weighted blanket is DPS, which is generally referred to as a form of touch pressure applied to the body providing the feeling of a firm hug, holding, swaddling, or massage.”
Help Manage Pain
Pain takes a tremendous toll on fibromyalgia patients. Understandably, many sufferers prefer alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter painkillers, which can cause long-term negative health problems. This is where a weighted blanket may help.
As Steph, a fibromyalgia sufferer, writes at My Chronic Pain Life, “For me, one of the things I love about fall and winter is getting into a cozy bed with my heavy duvet and snuggling in. Who knew that a weighted blanket has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, ASD [autism spectrum disorders] and more for adults and children alike?”
If you’ve ever curled up with a heavy comforter, you probably already have an idea of how weighted blankets work. By applying gentle pressure, a weighted blanket actually mimics therapeutic massage known as deep pressure touch stimulation. This firm pressure relaxes the nervous system and “triggers a chain reaction in the body that releases an overall sense of calm and peace.” Benefits include reduced pain, better sleep, improved focus, lower anxiety levels, and improved social interaction.
You may have heard of oxytocin, which is a neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone.” There are many ways to boost the body’s production of oxytocin. For example, the “runner’s high” people sometimes experience when they jog for a long distance is attributed to the release of oxytocin.
If you don’t have the time (or the energy) to hit the road for a long run, don’t worry — there are other ways to promote the release of natural oxytocin in the body. Dr. Timothy J. Legg at Medical News Today writes, “When people hug, the body releases the hormone oxytocin… The weighted blanket essentially imitates the warmth and security that a hug provides. Both the blanket and hug use a gentle, firm pressure that goes deep within the body giving a sense of repose that allows the body to relax.”
Sara Butler at The Joint Chiropractic adds, “Hugs can make a person feel more at ease, so what can possibly be more relaxing and reassuring than a blanket that imitates a hug? Hugging has been proven to release oxytocin into the blood, which then works to reduce blood pressure and provide an overall sense of relaxation.”