Differences Between Conventional Medicine and Functional Medicine 

  Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that affects between 2% and 8% of the population (Clauw D. J., 2014). It is more prevalent in women than in men, and it presents with chronic pain that affects the musculoskeletal system, fatigue, sleep problems, mood disorders, memory issues and other symptoms (Bair & Krebs, 2020). Fibromyalgia is not an illness with objective markers, and its diagnosis is usually made by studying a patient’s history and symptoms and then excluding other diseases that cause chronic widespread pain (Häuser, 2016). According to Galvez-Sánchez & Reyes Del Paso (2020) this has historically created problems in the diagnosis, management, treatment, and even social recognition of the disease. Old diagnosing guidelines called for the examination of so-called tender points: these are specific points on the body that are tested for pain and/or tenderness. In order to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a patient had to respond positively for tenderness to 11 out of 18 points. This was an inaccurate method, as fibromyalgia symptoms change from day to day. Current diagnostic guidelines now include widespread pain on both sides of the body for a minimum of three months (Fibromyalgia: Understand How It’s Diagnosed, 2020). After diagnosis, the patient is generally referred to a specialist in rheumatology for further treatment. 

What Does The Data Reveal?

 A study published in 2005 in The Journal of Rheumatology concluded that fibromyalgia can manifest hand in hand with neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine dysfunction, namely, higher than normal levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (catecholamines, serotonin, acetylcholine and histamine), low levels of biogenic amines as well as imbalances of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) (Mease P., 2005). Despite these findings, conventional medicine does not test for those biomarkers; instead, it manages fibromyalgia with the use of antidepressants (tricyclic and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)), anti-seizure medications, muscle relaxants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).  Other drugs prescribed include sedatives, norepinephrine/serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and experimental drugs. Exercise, acupuncture and massage are complementary alternative therapies that are often recommended in conjunction with medication (Chinn et al., 2016).    

Conventional Medicine’s Approach To Treatment

Conventional medicine has a reductionist approach to illnesses such as fibromyalgia, while functional medicine uses a holistic approach in the treatment of such conditions. It is frustrating to see such disparities. It is even more frustrating when there are numerous peer-reviewed studies that share important findings demonstrating that addressing the several underlying causes of fibromyalgia can bring this syndrome into remission. These findings have been reviewed, published and shared with the medical community, but conventional medicine is not yet using this knowledge to treat the root causes of the syndrome. The conventional medicine approach uses pharmaceutical drugs to manage symptoms;

this Band-Aid approach is not only unsustainable, it is also faulty. 

Functional Medicine’s Approach To Treatment

 Functional medicine recognizes fibromyalgia as a painful neuropathic pain syndrome that can have root causes in several systems. HPA imbalances, neurotransmitters dysfunction, endocrine issues, nutrient deficiencies, autoimmunity and stress can all play a role in fibromyalgia (Martínez-Lavín M., 2020). The functional medicine approach to treating fibromyalgia aims at finding the root causes of the disease and correcting them, while continuing to support the patient holistically through the use of targeted therapies as well as with complementary alternative therapies (CAM) like massage therapy, nutrient therapy, acupuncture, etc. (Pfalzgraf et al., 2020). 

Among the factors and conditions that are taken into consideration by functional medicine doctors when working with fibromyalgia patients are celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, candida overgrowth, hypothyroidism, nutrient deficiencies, leaky gut and small intestine bacterial overgrowth, adrenal fatigue, mercury toxicity, and glutathione deficiency. While the research is still in its early stages, preliminary findings show that people affected by celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance suffer from fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and brain fog (Isasi et al., 2016). Several studies show that many patients affected by fibromyalgia, myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) also suffer from abdominal discomfort syndrome (ADS) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A study from Maes et al. (2014) shows that the ME/CFS patients also presenting with ADS have higher than normal levels of “IgA and IgM responses to LPS or commensal bacteria” (Maes et al., 2014). Small intestine bacterial overgrowth and leaky gut are also associated with fibromyalgia. Treating the bacterial imbalance has been shown to ameliorate gastrointestinal and fibromyalgia symptoms (Logan & Beaulne, 2002).

 Hypothyroidism can cause secondary fibromyalgia (Corsalini et al., 2017); therefore, failure to test and to address thyroid function will perpetuate fibromyalgia symptoms. 

A Holistic Overview Of The Treatment OF Fibromyalgia

 The functional medicine approach also looks at nutrient status and possible deficiencies: a meta-analysis of 40 observational studies show that fibromyalgia sufferers have lower levels of vitamin D, vitamin B12, magnesium and vitamin E compared to a control group (Joustra et al., 2017) (Pagliai et al., 2020). Studies also show that they have significantly lower levels of glutathione compared to control (Shukla et al., 2020).

 The adrenal glands are our stress response system. Fibromyalgia patients are shown to have either hyper-cortisol or hypo-cortisol output, as well as HPA axis imbalances (Eller-Smith et al., 2018).

 There are other factors that are assessed by functional medicine doctors who work with fibromyalgia patients. While there I was not able to find peer reviewed studies on them, I was able to find quite a bit of anecdotal evidence online. According to Dr. Amy Myers, MD, factors to consider are exposure to mold, mercury toxicity, and MTHFR gene mutations. 

 Lastly, functional medicine also focuses on the mind-body connection when treating fibromyalgia: a systematic review of the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials shows that mind-body therapy is effective in improving quality of life, pain management, and mood issues in fibromyalgia sufferers. Mind-body therapy uses techniques such as biofeedback, mindfulness, relaxation and movement therapy (Theadom et al., 2015). 


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