Complementary and alternative treatments

Photo of a group yoga class
PantherMedia / Ingram Vitantonio Cicorella

Research has suggested that traditional Eastern practices such as tai chi, qigong and yoga can relieve fibromyalgia symptoms. There is no proof that other complementary or alternative treatments help.

People who have fibromyalgia often try out a lot of different things to relieve their pain and cope better in everyday life. Some pin their hopes on complementary and alternative approaches, and turn to naturopaths or other alternative practitioners – especially if they have the feeling that doctors can't help them or don’t take them seriously. Complementary and alternative practitioners usually take more time for their patients. But people generally have to pay for these treatments themselves.

Some people don’t believe in complementary and alternative medicine. One reason for this is that, for most of these treatments, there is no scientific explanation for how they would work. Whether or not a treatment works can still be tested in good-quality studies, though, even without knowing why they work. It's important to do good-quality studies because fibromyalgia symptoms come and go. This means that, if symptoms improve after using a certain treatment, that might just be a coincidence. In other words, the symptoms might have improved on their own anyway – especially because people tend to start treatments when their symptoms are particularly bad.

Which approaches can help?

Gentle physical exercise is very important for people who have fibromyalgia. The best-studied forms of exercise are Nordic walking, cycling and water aerobics. But research suggests that traditional Eastern practices can also relieve fibromyalgia symptoms. These include tai chi, qigong, and gentle yoga styles. Medical societies even strongly recommend them for people who have fibromyalgia, as an alternative to other forms of gentle exercise – if possible, for one hour, two to three times a week.

Other complementary and alternative treatments such as fasting cures, homeopathy, dietary supplements and magnetic therapy haven't been scientifically proven to help in people with fibromyalgia. People who offer these kinds of treatments often argue that the treatment was successful in individual patients of theirs. This isn't proof that it’s likely to work in other people, though. And it doesn’t take into account the people whose symptoms got worse or stayed the same after having the treatment.

Why is healthy skepticism important?

Contrary to popular belief, complementary and alternative treatments can have side effects too. This makes it all the more important to look at their effects in studies. So it’s a good idea to be a little skeptical of some of the treatments offered by doctors and practitioners. For instance, there aren’t any good-quality studies to show that fibromyalgia can be cured using surgery. So medical societies advise people not to have surgery for fibromyalgia.

It's understandable that people who have fibromyalgia might want to try out anything they can to make their symptoms better. But it’s particularly important to be skeptical of treatments that are claimed to be a cure, are very expensive and have to be paid for by patients themselves. Trying out new treatments all the time can lead to repeated disappointment, too.

For most people, learning to accept the disease rather than fighting it is an important step. Various things can help to cope better with fibromyalgia in everyday life, including exercise, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy with a focus on pain management.

Bidonde J, Busch AJ, Schachter CL, Overend TJ, Kim SY, Goes SM et al. Aerobic exercise training for adults with fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2017; (6): CD012700.

Bidonde J, Busch AJ, Webber SC, Schachter CL, Danyliw A, Overend TJ et al. Aquatic exercise training for fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (10): CD011336.

Boehm K, Raak C, Cramer H, Lauche R, Ostermann T. Homeopathy in the treatment of fibromyalgia - a comprehensive literature-review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med 2014; 22(4): 731-742.

Deare JC, Zheng Z, Xue CC, Liu JP, Shang J, Scott SW et al. Acupuncture for treating fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (5): CD007070.

Deutsche Schmerzgesellschaft. Definition, Pathophysiologie, Diagnostik und Therapie des Fibromyalgiesyndroms. AWMF-Registernr.: 145-004. March 17, 2017.

Geneen LJ, Moore RA, Clarke C, Martin D, Colvin LA, Smith BH. Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2017; (1): CD011279.

Lauche R, Cramer H, Häuser W, Dobos G, Langhorst J. A Systematic Overview of Reviews for Complementary and Alternative Therapies in the Treatment of the Fibromyalgia Syndrome. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2015: Article ID 610615.

Theadom A, Cropley M, Smith HE, Feigin VL, McPherson K. Mind and body therapy for fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015; (4): CD001980.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Created on February 21, 2018
Next planned update: 2021

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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