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NCCIH Clinical Digest

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Mind and Body Practices for Fibromyalgia:
What the Science Says

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September 2017
Woman massages pain on her upper back

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Clinical Guidelines, Scientific Literature, Info for Patients: 

Recent systematic reviews and randomized clinical trials provide encouraging evidence that practices such as tai chi, qi gong, yoga, acupuncture, mindfulness, and biofeedback may help relieve some fibromyalgia symptoms. There is insufficient evidence that any natural products can relieve fibromyalgia pain, with the possible exception of vitamin D supplementation, which may reduce pain in people with fibromyalgia who have vitamin D deficiencies.

Current diagnostic criteria are available from the American College of Rheumatology. Treatment often involves an individualized approach that may include both pharmacologic therapies (prescription drugs, analgesics, and NSAIDs) and nonpharmacologic interventions such as exercise, muscle strength training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, movement/body awareness practices, massage, acupuncture, and balneotherapy.

Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga

Findings from some randomized controlled trials suggest that meditative movement therapies such as tai chi, qi gong, and yoga may provide modest relief of some fibromyalgia symptoms.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis of 7 studies involving 362 participants found evidence that meditative movement therapies such as tai chi, qi gong, and yoga resulted in modest improvements in sleep disturbances, fatigue, depressed mood, and health-related quality of life at the conclusion of the study treatment period. The investigators also found evidence of continued improvement in sleep disturbances and health-related quality of life 3 to 6 months later. The investigators concluded that high-quality studies with larger sample sizes are needed to confirm these results.
  • A 2013 systematic review of two randomized controlled trials on fibromyalgia syndrome found very low evidence for yoga’s effects on pain and low evidence for yoga’s effects on disability. 

Safety

  • Tai chi and qi gong are generally regarded as safe practices. However, people who are pregnant, or who have a hernia, joint problems, back pain, fractures, or severe osteoporosis should use caution and consult their health care provider.
  • Yoga is generally considered to be safe in healthy people when practiced appropriately. However, people with certain conditions such as high blood pressure, glaucoma, or sciatica, and women who are pregnant should modify or avoid some yoga poses.

Massage

Results of a recent systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that massage therapy with a duration of 5 weeks or longer had beneficial immediate effects on improving pain, anxiety, and depression.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of nine randomized controlled trials involving 404 participants with fibromyalgia syndrome found that massage therapy with a duration of 5 weeks or longer had beneficial immediate effects on improving pain, anxiety, and depression.
  • A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis of 10 randomized and non-randomized controlled trials involving a total of 145 participants concluded that overall, most styles of massage therapy consistently improved the quality of life of patients with fibromyalgia syndrome.

Safety

  • Massage therapy appears to have few risks when performed by a trained practitioner. However, massage therapists should take precautions with certain health conditions.

Acupuncture

Limited evidence suggests that when compared to a control, acupuncture may help improve symptoms of fibromyalgia such as pain and stiffness.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2013 Cochrane review of 9 studies involving a total of 395 participants found low-to-moderate evidence that acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia, compared with no treatment and standard therapy. The reviewers also found moderate-level evidence that the effect of acupuncture does not differ from sham acupuncture in reducing pain or fatigue, or improving sleep or global well-being.
  • A 2010 systematic review included data from seven randomized controlled trials evaluating acupuncture for fibromyalgia, involving a total of 385 participants. The investigators reported evidence of a small analgesic effect of acupuncture. However, the effect was not clearly distinguishable from bias, and they concluded that acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of fibromyalgia symptoms.

Safety

  • Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles. Relatively few complications from acupuncture have been reported.
  • Serious adverse events related to acupuncture are rare but include infections and punctured organs.
  • There are fewer adverse effects associated with acupuncture than with many standard drug treatments (such as anti-inflammatory medication and steroid injections) used to manage painful musculoskeletal conditions like fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, and osteoarthritis.

Balneotherapy (Hydrotherapy)

There is some qualitative evidence that suggests that balneotherapy (hydrotherapy) may provide small improvement in pain and health-related quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia syndrome.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2014 qualitative systematic review and meta-analysis found moderate-to-strong evidence for a small reduction in pain (from eight randomized controlled trials involving 462 participants and three low-risk studies involving 223 participants) and moderate-to-strong evidence for a small improvement in health-related quality of life (from seven randomized controlled trials involving 398 participants, and three low-risk studies involving 223 participants). However, the study authors concluded that high-quality studies with larger sample sizes are needed to confirm the therapeutic benefits of balneotherapy or hydrotherapy for patients with fibromyalgia syndrome.

Safety

  • Balneotherapy is generally considered safe. A few mild side effects (i.e., slight flushing) have been reported.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness mediation may provide short-term improvements in pain and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia; however, the evidence is limited by a small number of studies with low methodological quality.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2015 Cochrane review of 61 trials involving 4,234 participants examined mind and body therapies for fibromyalgia. The review found no advantage observed for mindfulness compared to usual care (control) for physical functioning, pain, mood, or participant withdrawals post-intervention. However, the quality of the evidence was very low for pain and moderate for mood and number of withdrawals.
  • A 2015 randomized prospective controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in 91 women with fibromyalgia syndrome found that MBSR relieved some of the major symptoms of fibromyalgia and reduced subjective illness burden.

Safety

  • Mindfulness and other forms of meditation are generally considered to be safe for healthy people. However, they may need to be modified to make them safe and comfortable for people with some health conditions.

Biofeedback

There is some low-quality evidence that biofeedback, compared to usual care, has an effect on physical functioning, pain, and mood in patients with fibromyalgia; however, due to the lack of quality evidence, it is unknown if biofeedback has any therapeutic effect on these outcomes.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2015 Cochrane review found very low-quality evidence that biofeedback in comparison to usual care controls had an effect on physical functioning, pain, and mood post-treatment. However, because of the lack of quality of evidence the reviewers noted that they cannot be certain that biofeedback has a little or no effect on these outcomes.

Safety

  • In studies of electromyograhic biofeedback for fibromyalgia, some participants reported that the procedure was stressful. No other side effects were reported.

Guided Imagery

Studies on the effects of guided imagery for fibromyalgia symptoms have had inconsistent results.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2014 randomized controlled trial of 65 participants with fibromyalgia syndrome found no therapeutic effects of guided imagery on fibromyalgia symptoms.
  • A 2014 randomized trial involving 72 women with fibromyalgia found that after 10 weeks of daily guided imagery use, participants reported statistically significant increases in self-efficacy and statistically significant decreases in stress, fatigue, pain, and depression, compared to usual care controls. No statistically significant changes were seen in participants’ biomarker levels between groups, however, total group C-reactive protein was elevated at the start of the study.

Safety

  • Guided imagery is generally considered safe for healthy people. Occasionally, however, people report unpleasant experiences such as increased anxiety.

References

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at nccih.nih.gov. NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

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This page last modified March 27, 2018