Exercise may help fibromyalgia: Study

A new study shows that fibromyalgia patients who stopped taking medication but exercised regularly for six weeks reported improved memory function and less pain. While the finding is encouraging, it does not suggest a potential change in clinical care for fibromyalgia patients, the study authors stressed.

One of the authors, Dr. Brian Walitt, director of the Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center at Georgetown University Medical Center, is scheduled to present the findings on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2011 with co-researcher, Manish Khatiwada, at the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, sleep and cognitive problems. It has no apparent cause and the pain is real, Walitt said, and likely originates from the central nervous system. It typically affects women more than men. Exercise has long been recommended to fibromyalgia patients, and some find it improves their sense of well-being. “This is a first look at understanding how exercise alters memory performance,” Walitt said of the study.

In this study nine women received a baseline brain image called a functional MRI test. They were also given tests to assess their working memory and asked about their well-being and pain while on medication. The memory tests involved reading back a sequence of letters at various times after learning them.

As a next step the women stopped their medication for a six-week washout period. Then they had a second round of fMRIs and tests. Then they started a six-week supervised aerobic exercise program, consisting of three 30-minute sessions a week.

“When we took people off the medicine, they performed worse on the tests,” Walitt said. But, he added, “As they stayed off the medications for a period of time and exercised, their cognitive performance returned to normal levels (the same as at the start of the study),” he said. While more study is needed, Walitt said that “overall, exercise seems to be a beneficial thing for fibromyalgia patients, in terms of overall well-being. If you can exercise and make it work for you, that's great.”

Authors conclude that their results “indicate that as the patients discontinue their current medication treatment and transition into the exercise treatment their subjective rating of change in pain initially increases and then decreases… These results are suggestive of the effect exercise on not only self report of global change in pain sensation in FM but also improvement in the network of cortical areas recruited in working memory.”

While the study has some flaws, it's basically encouraging for those with the condition, said Dr. I. Jon Russell, a San Antonio fibromyalgia researcher and consultant, and retired professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. He thought the amount of time spent off medication during the study should have been longer before repeat testing. But, he said, “the most encouraging thing about this study is that fibromyalgia is continuing to be investigated.” “We have many reasons to believe that aerobic exercise is good for our patients. This study gives some support (to that idea),” Russell said. However, “We shouldn't over-interpret that exercise is the answer.”

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