The words ‘alternative medicine’ can sometimes generate great emotion. On the one hand, sceptics think of it in the same context as witchcraft. On the other, there are those who swear about the use of alternative therapies, shunning orthodox medicines.

Many of us probably lie between these two extremes of attitude. We believe that there is a place for alternative medicine, preferring to use the term ‘complementary therapy or ‘complementary & alternative medicine’ abbreviated as CAM.

So if you were to break your leg in a fall, don’t go to see your homeopath – go straight to your nearest Accident and Emergency department. On the other hand, there are a number of health conditions for which orthodox medicine has no clear answers for. For some of these, doctors may not always believe that a condition exists.

The Place of Alternative Medicine

One such condition is fibromyalgia. Those suffering from this problem experience pain and tenderness in muscles, making their joints feel ‘stiff’ as muscle pain limits movement. Although the condition is seen more often in those with a tendency to worrying unnecessarily, or those prone to anxiety, these appear to be ‘contributory’ rather than the cause.

The fact that the nerves cells of those suffering from fibromyalgia have been shown to behave abnormally suggest that the root of the problem is not psychological or psychiatric. Nerves have been shown to be more sensitive to normal touch (interpreted by the brain as pain) and in addition, those suffering from the condition can show abnormalities in Electroencephalograms (EEG, or brain wave tests) during sleep.

The latter explains why some people with fibromyalgia sleep poorly. Other symptoms include excessive tiredness or lethargy, poor concentration and memory, and digestive symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, excessive wind and bloating.

The symptoms of fibromyalgia are many. This is the reason some doctors prefer to call it a syndrome – a collection of symptoms.

This diversity, and also, the lack of a physical test, makes it a difficult problem to diagnose. It also causes the medical profession problems as some doctors doubt that fibromyalgia is a physical condition, typically lacking sympathy or empathy for those suffering the problem.

As orthodox medicine does not have an illness model or box to put the condition into, treatment often aims to alleviate symptoms with the use of pain-killers or anti-depressant medicines. In these circumstances, many people with fibromyalgia prefer to seek the help of complementary therapies.

There is a very wide range of alternative therapies

It has to be said that the term Complementary (or Alternative) medicine covers a very wide range of disciplines.

At one end of the spectrum, you have herbal medicines which are half-brothers of the medicines we use today. Indeed, just over 100 years ago, all our medicines were herbal and even today, more than 40% of new drug discoveries can be traced directly or indirectly to plants and herbs. In Europe, people do not consider herbal medicines as ‘alternatives’ as they are a treatment option offered by doctors for many health conditions.

At the other end of the CAM spectrum are therapies such as healing and dowsing. For those unfamiliar with their use, even those who believe in the use of Complementary medicines feel these therapies can appear a bit far-fetched.

If you search for fibromyalgia treatment on the internet, you will find the full range of CAM treatments offered. Some appear credible, others less so – so how would you know what to choose?

One approach might be to take it ‘a step at a time’ and start off from the orthodox end of the spectrum – with dietary changes as well as herbal remedies. This is, by the way, good guidance for anyone wanting to dip their toe into complementary therapies.

What Fibromyalgia Sufferers Can Do

First, have a look at some dietary advice. A naturopath, herbalist or nutritionist will be able to give you specific, personalized advice, but in general, reduce the amounts of acid producing foods in your diet, which in turn will lessen pain.

Second, increase your consumption of healthy fats from raw nuts and seeds, while decreasing unhealthy fat sources, namely animal foods and oils, which will also provide your body with the right support to reduce inflammation.

Third, strengthen your immune system by taking some immune-supporting herbs. Many nutritionists and naturopaths believe that one cause of fibromyalgia could be a previous, longstanding or latent viral infection, giving rise to chronic stress on the immune system. The herb Devil’s Claw is most commonly thought of as an herb for pain relief. It also has an influence on the immune system and this ‘dual action’ is useful for those suffering from fibromyalgia.


Complementary medicine often seeks out the root of the problem, rather than focusing on treatment of symptoms. However, in a condition such as fibromyalgia, treating symptoms can be useful. For instance, difficulty sleeping at night will not help the feelings of lethargy or tiredness during the day and paradoxically, in turn makes sleep less restful during the night. To break this cycle, try using a Valerian herb formula to settle the mind and help aid sleep. This is a far better alternative to sleeping pills which your doctor may prescribe for you.

So, unless you are an unreformed sceptic, it is clear that complementary therapies have a clear role in certain conditions such as fibromyalgia. Just remember to use them for the correct types of problems.

About the Author

Alison Cullen – BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Dist) qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997. Alison lectures, trains and writes extensively on health issues, and is often to be found quoted in health magazines and on health-related websites.