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Treatment of Pain

Pain is the primary over-riding problem for most of you. Many of the problems you experience are largely a secondary consequence of having chronic pain. When pain is even partly relieved, FM patients experience a significant improvement in psychological distress, cognitive abilities, sleep and functional capacity. A total elimination of pain is currently not possible in the majority of FM patients. However, worthwhile improvements can nearly always be achieved by a careful systematic analysis of the pain complaints.

As a generalization, FM-related pain can be divided into general pain (i.e., the chronic background pain experience) and focal pain (i.e., the intensification of pain in a specific region—usually aggravated by movement). The latter is probably a potent driving force in the generation of central sensitization. Attempts to break the pain cycle, to enable patients to be more functional are especially important.

In general, most FM patients do not derive a great deal of benefit from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) preparations or acetaminophen, although NSAIDs are very useful in the treatment of associated joint pain problems such as osteoarthritis. Prednisone and other steroids have been shown to be ineffective in the long-term treatment of FM.

General pain

The use of NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.) is usually disappointing. It is unusual for FM patients to experience more than a 20% relief of their pain, but many consider this to be worthwhile.  Narcotics (propoxyphene, codeine, and oxycodone) often provide a worthwhile relief of pain. In most patients, concerns about addiction, dependency and tolerance are ill-founded. Ultram (Tramadol) and Ultracet (Tramadol + Tylenol), are the most useful pain medications in many patients. They both have the advantages of having a low abuse potential and are not a prostaglandin inhibitor. Tramadol reduces the epileptogenic threshold and it should not be used in patients with seizure disorders.

Currently, opiates are the most effective medications for managing most chronic pain states (Friedman OP 1990, Portenoy 1996). Their use is often condemned out of ignorance regarding their propensity to cause addiction, physical dependence and tolerance (Melzack 1990, Portenoy et al 1997, Wall 1997).

While physical dependence (defined as a withdrawal syndrome on abrupt discontinuation) is inevitable, this should not be equated with addiction (Portenoy 1996). Addiction is a dysfunctional state occurring as a result of the unrestrained use of a drug for its mind-altering properties. Manipulation of the medical system and the acquisition of narcotics from non-medical sources are common accompaniments. Addiction should not be confused with "pseudo-addiction". This is a drug-seeking behavior generated by attempts to obtain appropriate pain relief in the face of under-treatment of pain.

Opiates should never be the first choice for pain relief in FM, but they should not be withheld if less powerful analgesics have failed. In my experience many FM patients want to try opioid medications, but then give up on them due to unacceptable side effects, such as mental fog, increased tiredness, dizziness, constipation and itching.

Local pain

Although you are experiencing widespread body pain—a manifestation of central sensitization—you will also have multiple areas of tenderness in muscles—so called "myofascial trigger points." The severity of pain and the location of these "hot spots" typically varies from month to month, and the judicious use of myofascial trigger point injections and spray and stretch (see section on focal pain) is worthwhile in selected patients. It is often worthwhile for your physician to identify the most symptomatic points for myofascial therapy. The steps involved in the injection of trigger points are:

1. Accurate identification of the trigger point.

2. Identification and elimination of aggravating factors.

3. The precise injection of the myofascial trigger points with 1% procaine (a local anesthetic).

4. Passive stretching of the involved muscle after the local anesthetic has taken effect; this is often aided by spraying the overlying skin with an ethyl chloride spray. In most FM patients, this myofascial therapy needs to be repeated over a period of several weeks and occasionally over several months.

Unresponsiveness is usually due to failure to eliminate an aggravating factor, imprecise injection of the trigger point, or failure to inject satellite trigger points. Trigger points are usually injected with 3 to 5 ml of 1-% procaine. Please note that these are not "steroid shots."

Performing "myofascial spray and stretch" often enhances the efficacy of trigger point injections immediately after the injections. Spray and stretch consists of an application of a vapocoolant spray, such as ethyl chloride over the muscle with simultaneous passive stretching. A fine stream of the spray is aimed toward the skin directly overlying the muscle with the active trigger point. A few sweeps of the spray are passed over the trigger point and the zone of reference. This is followed by a progressively increasing passive stretch of the muscle.

Evaluation by an occupational and physical therapist often provides worthwhile advice on improved ergonomics, biomechanical imbalance and the formulation of a regular stretching program. Hands-on physical therapy treatment with heat modalities is reserved for major flares of pain, as there is no evidence that long-term therapy alters the course of the disorder. The same comments can be made for acupuncture, TENS units and various massage techniques.