They vary from person to person, they fluctuate, they’re unpredictable and can knock you off your feet! Whether it’s the random pains or persistent pain that lasts for days, the foggy brain, sleep deprivation or extreme fatigue, they don’t happen without reason. Behind every symptom is a direct cause and an effect which is influenced by either / or a trio of abnormalities classified as:
As time goes by you get to know your symptoms as if they were your shadow and certainly how they affect daily life, but do we ever question other possibilities that might be contributing to their cause?
Most of the time we bypass the cause because of our habitual response where we get too caught up with the effects of the symptoms and this is when the mind starts doing its thing. Before you know it your full attention is directed on the symptoms, only to result in overthinking, catastrophising and excessive worrying – by which time it’s too late!. The stress-response has been activated and you’re back there again – stuck in the fibro-stress-loop! Unknown to yourself you’ve actually aggravated your symptoms and made your pain worse.
It might surprise you but there are many seemingly harmless ways you might be inadvertently aggravating your symptoms on a daily basis and they’re right in front of your nose. Here’s a few possibilities that might be having a devastating affect that are making your symptoms unnecessarily worse:
First of all it’s worth noting that there’s no scientific evidence that we should all be drinking 2 litres of water a day, it’s a myth and no doubt created by the bottled water industry! The truth is that the amount of fluid your body needs is largely governed by your age, gender, body size, the level of physical activity and the environment – so if you find yourself stuck in the desert you’ll obviously need more.
Water makes up about two thirds of your body weight and is needed to carry nutrients and waste around you’re your body, water regulates body temperature, plays a role in most chemical reactions in the body and essential for brain function. Water is also a key nutrient that makes up the synovial fluid that acts like a shock absorber to lubricate your joints and allow for ease of movement.
If your body is not getting an adequate amount of water it causes your muscles to become weakened and energy deficient, increasing your pain intolerance as a result of a build-up of toxins circulating in your system, which is obviously something you want to avoid if you have fibromyalgia.
Did you know that as we age, (around 60 years) the body’s natural thirst mechanism becomes less sensitive and becomes more prone to dehydration than a younger person? A problem arises if we forget or neglect our body’s fluid needs or substitute with sugary drinks, tea or coffee which acts as a diuretic, however we do get some fluid from foods we eat if that includes vegetables and fruits.
In general your body has a way of letting you know when it’s in need of water by way of making you thirsty – but sometimes that might be when it’s already too late and you’re dehydrated. Symptoms include:
- Light headiness
- Dry mouth
- Dry eyes
- Dark yellow urine
- Muscle pain and slow recovery
- Stiff achy joints
- Lack of energy and concentration
Top Tip: Aim to have regular sips of water throughout the day, (drinking more than you need can be as harmful as drinking too little). Keep a drink of water with you whilst you’re out and about, also learn to be in tune with your body’s needs to avoid inadvertently aggravating your fibromyalgia symptoms.
Foods that Trigger Symptoms
When it comes to what we eat, we are all different and what might be a trigger for some, will not for another. What is important though is to be aware that some foods and products are categorically worse than others for triggering off pain and other symptoms. The most common include:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Dairy products
- Food additives such as MSG
- Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, various peppers)
- Refined carbohydrates (various forms of sugar)
Top Tip: Sometimes the effects of various foods can be quite subtle, you might not even notice and other times they might be quite severe. It’s worth keeping a symptoms journal / diary and recording your daily diet to highlight any connection. If you start to see a patten emerge you can eliminate what foods are negatively affecting you and aggravating your symptoms.
Even if you’re lucky enough to get a good night’s sleep you can still wake up feeling pretty much wiped and maybe the first thing you reach for is that morning coffee to kick-start you into anything like normal. A problem arises when you feel you have to keep topping yourself up and still on the coffee well into the afternoon.
Caffeine can be so addictive and the downside is that it interrupts your body clock and adds to a bad night’s sleep. This leaves the door open to vulnerability of increased pain intolerance, fatigue, cognitive problems and so much more. Related article Fibromyalgia and Problems with Sleep.
Top Tip: Limit your caffeine intake to morning only and replace with herbal teas or try a supplement such as Coenzyme Q10 to improve your energy levels.
Lack of Physical Activity
I know there are days when even just the thought of physical activity is enough to make you turn a funny colour! It’s like a double-edged sword though when you have fibromyalgia pain raging through your body, making it virtually impossible to exercise, even though you know you should. The last thing you want or need is someone telling you to get active but the fact is that lack of activity leads to more pain.
The less we use our muscles the more the deterioration weakens them and goes on to develop a condition called disuse atrophy. This causes the weakened muscles make simple tasks like cooking a meal or taking a shower and styling your hair extremely painful and totally exhausting. It’s really a case of use them or lose them and you’ll reap huge benefits for taking some time for regular exercise, stretching and keeping some form of gentle activity as a daily routine to avoid ceasing up and creating more pain than necessary.
Top Tip: Be aware of your limits and practice the 80 / 20 rule – don’t go at it one hundred percent, in this case less can be more. There are umpteen stretching videos you can watch and follow, Qigong is perfect, also yoga, swimming (when we can) and there’s nothing better than a daily walk.
Sometimes we really can be our worst enemy when it comes to aggravating our symptoms, particularly pain in our neck and back. Slouching, head thrust forward looking at our phones, straining and pulling on the neck and skull muscles, then we complain about headaches. Poor posture habits have books written about them and it’s quite easy to confuse the pain they cause with fibromyalgia. Related article Pain, Posture and Fibromyalgia is worth a read.
Top Tip: Take the time to do what I call a “self-check-in”. Every hour, on the hour, practice stopping what you’re doing and just give yourself a bit of a tension check. It only takes a minute but it’s enough to bring your awareness to any tension you might be holding in your muscles that might end up as some serious pain later. Once you’ve located a tension area, notice your posture and adjust it and take a few deep breaths to release any tightness. This will quite quickly reduce any self-induced pain aggravation and develop a healthier posture habit.
We all have the odd, good days and forget that fibromyalgia is still there, silently lurking, just waiting to sneak up and bite you on the bum! Nevertheless, it’s on these good days that we go ballistic and try to catch up on everything on the to-do-list. We’ve all been there I’m sure, only to find that a few days later that we have to pay for it when we’ve crashed in a heap and delirious in pain – the worst of this is that we’ve done it to ourselves!
Top Tip: Know your limits and remember to pace yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but a useful tip is to write a list of what needs to be done with a time schedule you’re willing to give it. Stick to this and take a rest in between tasks where you can reward yourself with a break and a treat. By doing this the brain soon catches on to the reward bit because that’s its preferred state and you get to avoid the dreaded flare-up. Practice makes perfect!
It seems there’s no blog I write that doesn’t include the word “stress” and this is no exception because stress really is one of the main aggravators of fibromyalgia symptoms and pain. The fact is that no one can go through life without a stressful situation – it’s part and parcel of our modern-day life. However, for those struggling with fibromyalgia tend to be in a continual stress loop because of their condition and the challenges it throws at us.
Stress, or more accurately put, the effects of stress on the body, can be amplified because of fibromyalgia and its root cause based on central sensitization syndrome, creating heightened sensitivities and making us more emotionally actively responsive to stressful situations. Simply put, how we respond to a stressful situation is capable of either making or breaking us.
Top Tip: Finding ways to manage the stress in your life is essential to reducing the effect it has on aggravating your symptoms. There are numerous ways to manage stress, a few favourites at the clinic include practicing breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation and the relaxation response. The more regular you practice the better your resilience to stress develops and as they say, “You can’t be stressed and relaxed at the same time”.
Too Much Focus on the Pain
Do you spend too much time googling fibromyalgia or following the bucket loads of negative group chats completely absorbed by every symptom under the sun and relating it to fibromyalgia?
It’s understandable that it’s not a good thing to feel alone when you struggle with fibromyalgia or feel isolated due to our current situation with the pandemic. However, long term this only teaches you to focus solely on your condition, your symptoms and pain levels which may well increase the worry and contribute to an unhelpful negative mindset and rob your energy.
Eventually your true sense of self, your positivity and hope will be consumed by fear and despair and all because you unwittingly became caught up in the catastrophising that dominates the collective mindset.
Top Tip: Find other ways to distract yourself from your symptoms and pain. You’ve heard of “getting in the flow”? This can work for you or against you, make sure your flow is taking your mind into a helpful state and something you enjoy and your body will naturally respond to this in a beneficial way.
On a final note this list is far from conclusive and no doubt there are many other things that inadvertently make symptoms worse. Every day is a new day and we can only do our best, we might not get recovery but with a little room for improvement we can continue the journey of healing, that’s where our strength comes from, let me know your thoughts.
Author Jok Saunders, founder of the Fibro Clinic South West