Jewish World Review March 28, 2003 / 25 Adar II, 5763

BODYLESSONS: An answer to the pain?

By Judi Sheppard Missett | For millions of individuals, every day is laced with chronic pain and overwhelming fatigue. Worse still, after numerous trips to the doctor, the cause of the pain can remain a mystery. If this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from fibromyalgia, which affects between 5 and 10 million Americans alone.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by an intense burning or aching in various muscles throughout the body, often accompanied by stiffness, bowel problems, sleep deprivation and tremendous fatigue. It affects women more than men, by a ratio of 8:2. The condition is hard to diagnose because there is no swelling and it does not reveal itself in blood tests or X-rays. To date, the origin is still uncertain.

While its name implies a muscle illness -- "fibro'' meaning "fibrous tissues,'' such as muscles and tendons, and "myalgia'' meaning "widespread muscular pain'' -- research indicates that it actually may be a disorder of the central nervous system.

Tests of fibromyalgia patients found that they respond differently to painful stimuli. Instead of "recovering'' between each stimulus, their central nervous systems appeared to hold on to the pain and allow it to build.

Fortunately, progress has been made on diagnosis and treatment. If you experience widespread pain in the upper and lower body for more than three months and your doctor has ruled out other possible conditions, such as arthritis, it may be time to request a fibromyalgia screening.

Basically, your physician tests 18 designated tender points throughout the body. If you experience localized pain in 11 of the 18 defined sites, you probably have fibromyalgia.

Medication is often prescribed to ease the symptoms, but research indicates that exercise is also an effective treatment. While it goes against human nature to exercise when you're in pain, allowing your muscles to degenerate can aggravate the problem. Weakened muscles are even more susceptible to micro-trauma from even the lightest of activities. And in addition to keeping the muscles strong, exercise boosts energy, promotes restful sleep, increases your range of motion, alleviates mild depression and affects hormones associated with the central nervous system.

But experts are quick to point out that exercise goals must be different for fibromyalgia sufferers. The primary goal is to preserve function, so activities should be of low to moderate intensity. (One expert describes it as active relaxation.) The key is consistency, not conditioning. Hence the intensity of every workout should be adjusted according to an individual's tolerance of pain and fatigue.

An appropriate program may include aerobic activities, such as walking, water exercise or low-impact dance exercise; light resistance training (primarily with bands and tubes); andmild stretching, done often but never to the point of pain.

Of course, it's important to get your doctor's approval and recommendations before beginning a program. Once you get that, try the following basic lunge. It strengthens virtually all of the leg and hip muscles, while developing balance, torso alignment and stability.

If desired, you can use a set of light- to medium-weight dumbbells, as shown, to add resistance.

Stand tall with your feet-hip width apart and your knees and toes pointing forward. Take a giant step forward with one leg so that you are in a wide stance. Align your torso between your feet and lift your back heel off the floor.

Keeping your torso lifted tall, slowly bend your knees and lower yourself into a lunge position. Press your weight into your front heel as you return to the beginning position.

Think of moving your torso directly up and down, rather than forward and back, as you perform the exercise. Make sure your front knee does not bend forward past the plane of your toes, and aim your back knee toward the floor as you lower. Never lower your hips below the level of your front knee. Repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg.

Judi Sheppard Missett is CEO of Jazzercise Inc., an international aerobic-dance instruction company. Comment by clicking here.


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