For people with the mysterious chronic pain condition of fibromyalgia, the researchers say that nerve stimulation could bring some relief.
A recent study showed that using TENS – transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation – during exercise or activity significantly reduces the pain associated with fibromyalgia after four weeks.
Dr. Lesley Arnold, who was not involved in the new study, praised the results. “The improvements in pain and fatigue were remarkable,” she said. Arnold, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the medical school at the University of Cincinnati, suggested that the study could help doctors use TENS for symptom management.
TENS uses a battery powered machine to deliver electrical currents through electrodes attached to the skin. This is believed to activate nerve pathways that inhibit pain.
People with fibromyalgia are encouraged to exercise to relieve their symptoms. But paradoxically, exercise can be painful for them.
In the study, the researchers randomly divided more than 300 women with fibromyalgia into three groups: active TENS; Placebo (bill) TENS; or no TENS.
Participants in the TENS group were instructed to use the device at home two hours a day during the activity for four weeks. Patients were instructed to place the device electrodes on two specific areas along the back – an upper and a lower one – and to activate the machine with a modulated or varying frequency with the highest tolerable intensity.
After four weeks, the participants in the active-TENS group reported a significant reduction in pain and fatigue during exercise and rest, especially in comparison to the no-TENS group.
The study’s lead author, Kathleen Sluka, a research professor at the University of Iowa, said the study marks the culmination of years of animal research, during which she and her co-researchers experimented with variations in the use of TENS.
Over time, the researchers found that switching between low and high frequencies best contributed to pain relief. The same applies to starting the machine to the highest possible intensity. “Strong but not painful,” she said.
While Sluka sees the results of the study as promising, she made sure that TENS is not a cure for fibromyalgia.
“This is another tool that patients cannot use to relieve their pain,” said Sluka. It could enable someone to reach for something other than ibuprofen or opioids as the first line of defense.
The TENS is readily available and associated with a minimal risk, which also makes it attractive. TENS devices can be purchased over the counter in pharmacies for less than $ 50. Regarding the adverse effects, slight irritation was reported as the primary adverse effect where the electrodes were attached. And that is slight and easily adjustable, Sluka noted.
Superstar Lady Gaga highlighted fibromyalgia when she canceled several concert tour dates in 2017 and 2018 due to reported flare-ups.
According to the National Fibromyalgia Association, about 10 million Americans are affected by the disease.
While researchers continue to look for safe and effective ways to relieve the pain of fibromyalgia, much remains a mystery.
The diagnosis is usually based on the patient’s medical history and examination. There is no blood test or other biomarker to determine this. And although the biological causes are unclear, most experts believe that they are related to changes in the central nervous system that affect the body’s response to pain.
The management of the disease, which affects women disproportionately, has improved in recent years, Arnold said. It is identified earlier; general awareness of the condition has improved; and recently some drugs have been approved for treatment by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
“But there are still a lot of unmet needs,” said Arnold.
The report was recently published online in the Arthritis & Rheumatology journal.
There is more about fibromyalgia at the National Fibromyalgia Association.
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