Exercise for Fibromyalgia – New Research

exercise for fibromyalgia

Low-intensity water therapy for fibromyalgia can help with pain relief.

Exercising with fibromyalgia can be both difficult and rewarding so whilst many patients understand that living with fibromyalgia might be easier with regular exercise it is often hard to get going when fatigued and in pain. Research by Georgetown University scientists presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s latest conference might help provide a little extra motivation for patients however as they reveal that six weeks of aerobic exercise helps relieve pain in patients discontinuing their analgesics medications. Fibromyalgia and neck pain are connected in some patients although such pain should not simply be attributed to fibromyalgia without proper investigation; in some cases neck pain may be due to an additional problem such as spinal stenosis which could be treated using alternative interventions to those suitable for fibromyalgia.

Exercise for Fibromyalgia Improves Memory

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, the researchers at Georgetown carried out a study of fibromyalgia patients undertaking a fibromyalgia exercise program in place of pain medications. Not only did they note that the patients themselves reported less pain when ceasing medication they also observed functional changes in brain patterns in the group carrying out exercise. These changes included an increase in activity in the task-related parts of the brain and patients also experienced improvements in working memory during the study.

Fibromyalgia Pain Relief with Exercise

Leading the research team, Manish Khatiwada, MS, from Georgetown’s Medical Center proposed that exercise with fibromyalgia could be beneficial in reducing symptoms of pain and mobility as well as cutting through the infamous ‘fibro-fog’ reported by many sufferers of the condition. Georgetown University has a Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center where many patients take part in studies of this kind but the director of the unit made sure to point out that this study does not necessitate a change in current fibromyalgia treatment plans.

Brain Activity in Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia exercise pain neck trigger points

Fibromyalgia trigger points include several in the neck.

The study looked at nine women with fibromyalgia, eight of whom were right handed, and whose average age was just under 49yrs. Over the course of four visits the researchers took a variety of measurements with an initial washout period for the medication the patients were currently taking for their fibromyalgia. The women then spent six weeks without their fibromyalgia medications followed by six weeks of aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia. The patients carried out working memory tasks during the fMRI scan and brain activity was monitored for changes after each intervention. The changes noted in this study are important because fibromyalgia is a condition where pain is objectively verifiable and stems from the central nervous system rather than being psychosomatic in origin. There are numerous tender points characteristic of fibromyalgia with several trigger points in the neck causing cervical spinal pain.

Benefits of Exercise for Fibromyalgia

The women initially experienced an increase in pain experienced subjectively before that pain decreases during the exercise intervention. The inverse happened with the brain areas used in the working memory task, with the cessation of pain medication followed by a decrease and then an increase as the exercise program continued. Neck pain associated with fibromyalgia may be treatable then using exercise and physical therapy as an intervention but care should be taken to ensure no other cause of neck pain is present, such as cervical spinal arthritis, or temporomandibular joint syndrome. This latest research does, however, add to a growing body of evidence showing the likely benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia.


Khatiwada, M., Vanmeter, J., Walitt, B., Effect of aerobic exercise on working memory in fibromyalgia, Neuroscience 2011: Abstract 258.08, Poster BB5. Presented November 13, 2011.

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