by Alex Granados
Last Updated 10/25/16
There are an estimated 7 million people in the United States suffering from fibromyalgia. That number is an estimate because the disease is often understood and often misdiagnosed. Many fibromyalgia patients receive nothing more from their doctors than painkillers.
While the traditional medical establishment has put fibromyalgia into a pharmaceutical box, there are some doctors who view the illness more holistically. Singar Jagadeesan, a Cary, North Carolina neurologist, is one of those doctors. Like most physicians, Dr. Jagadeesan saw fibromyalgia in pretty simple terms when he started his practice.
“I was treating it just like anybody else,” Dr. Jagadeesan said. “I would give muscle relaxers and pain medications to control the symptoms. I was failing miserably.”
While it is true fibromyalgia causes muscle pain, people with the disorder often experience tenderness in other parts of their body when pressure is applied. This is why painkillers are an often and obvious go-to for physicians.
But what about the host of other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, including insomnia, fatigue, headaches, numbness or tingling in hands and feet, menstrual irregularities, and brain fog and confusion?
And what about fibromyalgia patients having four times the incidence of depression? Fifty percent of patients say they have trouble with daily routines; 30 percent end up quitting or changing their jobs because of fibromyalgia.
Dr. Jagadeesan struggled with these questions, frustrated at not being able to successfully help patients with traditional treatment options. His struggle led him to study the disorder more closely, which led him to integrative medicine/functional medicine.
Functional medicine doesn’t view illness as a simple diagnosis. Rather, it seeks to identify the systems in the body that are out of whack and address the imbalances.
As Dr. Jagadeesan learned, his view of fibromyalgia shifted; he realized it develops from a snowball effect of dysfunction.
“Fibromyalgia patients are good examples of chronic multi-system derangement,” he said. “They have chronic inflammation. They have immune system problems. They have chronic infection problems. We need to evaluate them systematically to improve the underlying cause, rather than just controlling the pain.”
While Dr. Jagadeesan, like most doctors, isn’t sure what causes fibromyalgia, he says physical or emotional trauma and remote bacterial or viral infections are disorder triggers. Poor lifestyle choices are a contributing factor as well. When a patient comes in to see him, it’s these first areas Dr. Jagadeesan seeks to change.
“Once you know it’s fibromyalgia, you start working on sleep and diet,” he said.
These are two main areas where patients usually lack balance. Dr. Jagadeesan educates patients on proper sleep hygiene and he suggests dietary changes. For example, patients can switch to a whole food diet, avoiding grains, processed food, and sugar. Consuming fermented foods and probiotics can also help, plus exercise.
From there, Dr. Jagadeesan works to wean patients off medications that may be exacerbating their systems. He cautions this should only be done under a doctor’s supervision. Finally, he suggests supplements based on the need to help restore order.
There is no easy way to diagnose fibromyalgia. There is no blood test, X-ray or other straightforward means of identifying the illness. As a result, doctors must rely on a symptom checklist.
“It’s more like a composition of clinical symptoms put together,” Dr. Jagadeesan said. “So you rule out other things like autoimmune conditions, multiple sclerosis, depression or other common disorders. That’s how you end up with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. There is no fixed rule to diagnose fibromyalgia.”
No fixed rule — it’s why Dr. Jagadeesan thinks fibromyalgia is such a contested topic in the medical community. Doctors want simple answers and explanations… and there’s nothing simple about fibromyalgia.
The good news is that, with functional medicine, doctors like Dr. Jagadeesan aren’t as concerned with putting a label on a patient. Functional medicine is unique in that patients are evaluated as a whole.
Unfortunately, sometimes helping them involves actions that nobody likes to hear: Cut out junk food. Exercise daily. Get a healthier amount of sleep each night. But for those patients who are willing, the results of such actions could be nothing short of transformative.