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Fibromyalgia Basics

Heat Tones Down Pain

Intuitively, heat is soothing for sore muscles, it helps them relax. But can the application of heat realistically tone down the central nervous system that is responsible for generating fibromyalgia pain? Based on a study involving patients with low back pain, the answer is “yes” and heat will even help with sleep.

A team in Germany used brain electroencephalogram (EEG) activity as an objective measure of the number of noxious signals bombarding the brain due to the painful muscles in the lower back.1 By recording EEG activity, the researchers could detect whether the signals to the central nervous system declined when heat was applied to the lower back. This is of particular interest for people with fibro because signals entering the central nervous system are amplified, leading to an enhanced pain state.

Identifying nondrug therapies that can reduce the noxious signals into the central nervous system, yet with little or no side effects, would greatly benefit people with fibromyalgia. Such therapies could be used in addition to medications to help tone down the pain.

The study consisted of two groups, each with 15 people complaining of low back pain. The control group received a bottle of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID, such as ibuprofen) and were told they could take it for pain, if needed. The treatment group received four heat wraps, one to be worn each day for up to eight hours during the next four days. In addition, this group also received the same NSAID, which they could take for pain. Subjects also completed symptom questionnaires each day.

All participants returned to the study center on day one and day four so that the researchers could measure their brain activity using EEG. Brain signals at the high frequency represent alerting and stressful stimuli, and it’s an objective measure of the amount of pain a person is experiencing. A drop in this value indicates that fewer noxious signals are entering a person’s central nervous system to produce pain.

The brain EEG signals dropped significantly for the heat wrap group and this objective reduction in pain occurred mostly during the first two days. Compared to the control group, the authors state, “the heat wrap therapy was more effective in reducing pain, decreasing stress at work, and increasing quality of sleep.”

Although people with fibromyalgia hurt all over, a patient’s most painful area can be the driving factor for determining a person’s overall pain level.2 Applying heat to the region that is most sore may not only “feel good,” it can also bring down your fibromyalgia discomfort to more tolerable levels. And, if the widespread pain is keeping you awake at night, take a long hot bath or shower just before bedtime.

1. Kettermann B, et al. Clin J Pain 23(8):663-8, 2007.
2. Staud R, et al. Rheumatology 45(11):1409-15, 2006.