Fibromyalgia — a disorder that causes pain and tenderness throughout the body — affects over 5 million adults in the United States — mainly women, who make up 75-90 percent of those diagnosed with the condition. Generally, fibromyalgia strikes in middle age, but children can also be at risk. It occurs around the world and is found in all races and ethnicities.
Scientists are unsure as to the cause of the condition, but some suspect it occurs when the body’s central nervous system doesn’t process pain properly. Fibromyalgia usually begins after one has suffered from a physical, psychological or emotional trauma — like illness, infection, injury or upsetting life event. The disorder is also associated with irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, neurological issues, chemical sensitivities, restless legs syndrome, brain fog, fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
Needless to say, fibromyalgia can severely disrupt daily life, work and relationships, especially since anxiety and depression are close companions of the disorder. To make matters worse, medical science hasn’t been able to offer much in the way of effective treatment. Until now.
New Hope for Fibromyalgia Patients
Researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research, were studying the positive effects hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) had on post-traumatic brain injury patients, when they realized the same therapy could be beneficial for those suffering from fibromyalgia.
“Patients who had fibromyalgia in addition to their post-concussion symptoms had complete resolution of the symptoms,” said lead author Dr. Efrati, who also noted his own mother suffers from the disorder.
“Most people have never heard of fibromyalgia,” he said. “And many who have, including some medical doctors, don’t admit that this is a real disorder. I learned from my M.D. friends that this is not the only case in which disorders that target mainly women raise skepticism in the medical community as to whether they’re real or not. However, these days there are increasing efforts to understand the effect of gender on body disorders.”
The clinical trial was published in PLoS ONE and found that women with fibromyalgia who were treated with hyperbaric oxygen treatment were able to drastically reduce — or even eliminate — the use of pain medications.
The study involved 60 women who had been diagnosed at least two years prior with fibromyalgia. For a variety of reasons, a dozen left the trial, but half of the remaining 48 patients completed two months of hyperbaric oxygen therapy — receiving 90-minutes of the treatment, five days a week.
The other half of the participants were part of a “crossover-control group.” Before the trial and after the two-month control period, they were evaluated and had no improvement in their condition. But after the control period, they were given the same HBOT as the first group — and experienced the same significant reduction in symptoms.
The chambers expose patients to pure oxygen at two times the atmospheric pressure and are generally used for those suffering from embolisms, carbon monoxide poisoning, burns and decompression sickness.
The women who finished the treatment experienced drastic improvement in their condition. “The intake of the drugs eased the pain but did not reverse the condition,” said Dr. Efrati. “But hyperbaric oxygen treatments did reverse the condition.”
He adds the therapy is “designed to address the actual cause of fibromyalgia — the brain pathology responsible for the syndrome.”
The treatment pushes additional oxygen into the patient’s bloodstream, which in turn is delivered to the brain. HBOT therapy ultimately encourages neuroplasticity and leads to the healing of impaired brain functions. It has been used with success to improve the quality of life for patients with mild traumatic brain injuries — including stroke.
“The results are of significant importance since, unlike the current treatments offered for fibromyalgia patients, HBOT is not aiming for just symptomatic improvement,” said Dr. Efrati. “HBOT is aiming for the actual cause — the brain pathology responsible for the syndrome. It means that brain repair, including even neuronal regeneration, is possible even for chronic, long-lasting pain syndromes, and we can and should aim for that in any future treatment development.
“As a physician, the most important finding for me is that 70 percent of the patients could recover from their fibromyalgia symptoms.”