Fever

Fever

A fever is a rise in body temperature to greater than 100°F (37.8°C).

Description

A healthy person’s body temperature fluctuates between 97°F (36.1°C) and 100°F (37.8°C), with the average being 98.6°F (37°C). The body maintains stability within this range by balancing the heat produced by the metabolism with the heat lost to the environment.

The “thermostat” that controls this process is located in the hypothalamus, a small structure located deep within the brain. The nervous system constantly relays information about the body’s temperature to the thermostat. In turn, the thermostat activates different physical responses designed to cool or warm the body, depending on the circumstances.


These responses include:
  • decreasing or increasing the flow of blood from the body’s core, where it is warmed, to the surface, where it is cooled
  • slowing down or speeding up the rate at which the body turns food into energy (metabolic rate)
  • inducing shivering, which generates heat through muscle contraction
  • inducing sweating, which cools the body through evaporation

A fever occurs when the body’s thermostat resets at a higher temperature, which primarily happens in response to an infection. To reach the higher temperature, the body moves blood to the warmer interior, increases the metabolic rate, and induces shivering. The chills that often accompany a fever are caused by the movement of blood to the body’s core, which leaves the surface and extremities cold.

Once the body reaches the higher temperature, the shivering and chills stop. When the infection has been overcome or drugs such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) have been taken, the thermostat resets to normal. When this happens, the body’s cooling mechanisms switch on. The blood moves to the surface and sweating occurs.

Fever is an important component of the immune response, though its role is not completely understood. Physicians believe that an elevated body temperature has several effects. Certain chemicals in the immune system react with the fever-inducing agent and trigger the resetting of the thermostat.

These immune system chemicals also increase the production of cells that fight off the invading bacteria or viruses. Higher temperatures also inhibit the growth of some bacteria and speed up the chemical reactions that help the body’s cells repair themselves. Changes in blood circulation may cause the heart rate to increase, which speeds the arrival of white blood cells to the sites of infection.

Causes & symptoms

Fevers are primarily caused by viral or bacterial infections, such as pneumonia or influenza. However, other conditions can induce a fever, including these:
  • allergic reactions
  • autoimmune diseases
  • trauma, such as breaking a bone
  • cancer
  • excessive exposure to the sun
  • intense exercise
  • hormonal imbalances
  • certain drugs
  • damage to the hypothalamus

When an infection occurs, fever-inducing agents called pyrogens are released, either by the body’s immune system or by the invading cells themselves. These pyrogens trigger the resetting of the thermostat. In other circumstances, an uncontrolled release of pyrogens may occur when the immune system overreacts due to an allergic reaction or becomes damaged due to an autoimmune disease.

A stroke or tumor can damage the hypothalamus, causing the body’s thermostat to malfunction. Excessive exposure to the sun or intense exercise in hot weather can result in heat stroke, a condition in which the body’s cooling mechanisms fail. Malignant hyperthermia is a rare, inherited condition in which a person develops a very high fever when given certain anesthetics or muscle relaxants in preparation for surgery.

A recent study showed that most parents have misconceptions about fever and view it as a disease rather than a symptom. How long a fever lasts and how high it may go depend on several factors, including its cause and the patient’s age and overall health. Most fevers caused by infections are acute, appearing suddenly and then dissipating as the immune system defeats the infectious agent.

An infectious fever may also rise and fall throughout the day, reaching its peak in the late afternoon or early evening. A low-grade fever that lasts for several weeks is associated with autoimmune diseases such as lupus or with some cancers, particularly leukemia and lymphoma.

Diagnosis

A fever is usually diagnosed using a thermometer. A variety of different thermometers are available, including traditional oral and rectal thermometers made of glass and mercury, and more sophisticated electronic ones that can be inserted in the ear. For adults and older children, temperature readings are usually taken orally. Younger children who cannot or will not hold a thermometer in their mouths can have their temperatures taken by placing an oral thermometer under their armpits. Infants generally have their temperature taken rectally using a rectal thermometer.

As important as registering a patient’s temperature is determining the underlying cause of the fever. The physician can make a diagnosis by checking for accompanying symptoms and by reviewing the patient’s medical history, any recent trips he or she has taken, what he or she may have ingested, or any illnesses he or she has been exposed to. Blood tests hold additional clues.

Antibodies in the blood point to the presence of an infectious agent, which can be verified by growing the organism in a culture. Blood tests can also provide the doctor with white blood cell counts. Ultrasound tests, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests, or computed tomography (CT) scans may be ordered if the doctor cannot readily determine the cause of a fever.

Treatment

Often, doctors must remind patients, especially parents, not to “overtreat” low fevers but to remember that they are symptoms of an underlying disease or condition. Alternative therapies for treatment of fever focus not only on reducing fever but also on boosting the immune function to help the body fight infections more effectively. They include nutritional therapy, herbal therapy and traditional Chinese medicine.

Nutritional therapy

Naturopaths often recommend that patients take high doses of vitamin C to ward off diseases and prevent fever. In addition to vitamin C, other antioxidants such as vitamin A and zinc also boost the immune function. Naturopaths may also suggest reducing sugar intake (even fruit juices) because sugar depresses the immune system. To replace fluid that is lost during fever, patients are advised to drink vegetable juices and eat soups.

Herbal therapy

Western herbalists use tea preparations containing herbs such as bupleurum root or boneset to reduce fever. Mild herbs such as peppermint, elderflower, or yarrow can provide comfort to the child who has a mild fever. Others believe in sweating a fever out, literally. They often recommend that patients take hot baths to induce sweating. This helps induce or increase fever, which is believed to help the body get rid of infections.

Chinese medicine (TCM) offers many herbs and formulas for fevers. There are many distinct kinds of fevers, also called heat syndromes. For example, an excess- heat syndrome is characterized by a high fever, great thirst, and lots of sweating. Deficiency heat syndrome is characterized by a low-grade fever with afternoon fevers or night sweats. For excess heat, herbs that are dispersing and cold in nature are used.

For chronic and low-grade fevers, herbs that tonify the yin (cooling aspect) are used as well as herbs that get rid of heat. There are even herbs such as bupleurum root (called Chai Hu in TCM) that are used for intermittent fevers or conditions alternating between fever and chills. Alternating fevers and chills occur in malaria, conditions connected to AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Epstein- Barr virus. The individual pattern should be diagnosed by a trained practitioner.

Aromatherapy

Patients can reduce feverish symptoms by inhaling essential oils of camphor, eucalyptus, lemon, and hyssop. These oils can also be mixed with an unscented body lotion or a vegetable oil for aromatherapy massage.

Homeopathy

Homeopathic doctors may prescribe herbal remedies based on the patient’s overall personality profile as well as specific symptoms.

Allopathic treatment

Physicians agree that the most effective treatment for a fever is to address its underlying cause. Also, because a fever helps the immune system fight infection, some clinicians suggest it be allowed to run its course. Drugs to lower fever (antipyretics) can be given if a patient (particularly a child) is uncomfortable.

These include aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. Aspirin, however, should not be given to a child or adolescent with a fever since this drug has been linked to an increased risk of Reye’s syndrome. Sponging a child or infant with tepid (lukewarm) water can also help reduce mild fevers.

A fever requires emergency treatment under the following circumstances:
  • Newborn (three months or younger) with a fever above 100.5°F (38°C).
  • Infant or child with a fever above 103°F (39.4°C). A very high fever in a small child can trigger seizures (febrile seizures) and therefore should be treated immediately.
  • Fever accompanied by severe headache, neck stiffness, mental confusion, or severe swelling of the throat. A fever accompanied by these symptoms can indicate the presence of a serious infection, such as meningitis, and should be brought to the immediate attention of a physician.

Expected results

Most fevers caused by infection end as soon as the immune system rids the body of the pathogen. Most fevers do not produce any lasting effects. The prognosis for fevers associated with more chronic conditions, such as autoimmune disease, depends upon the overall outcome of the disorder.

Feverfew

Feverfew

Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium or Tanacetum parthenium) is named for one of the herb’s traditional medicinal uses as a febrifuge, from the Latin febrifugia, indicating its fever-reducing action. This European native of the Compositae (Asteraceae) or aster family has naturalized throughout North and South America, escaping from cultivation. It can be found along roadsides and along the borders of wooded areas. Other common names include featherfew, febrifuge plant, featherfoil, mid-summer daisy, and wild chamomile.

Feverfew is a bushy and herbaceous perennial that grows from a branched and tapering root to produce erect, round and slightly grooved stems. The feathery, aromatic and bitter-tasting leaves are arranged alternately along the length of the many-branched stem. They are a yellow-green, stalked, and bipinnate with deeply cut, toothed segments in an oval shape.

Flowers bloom in mid to late-summer in flat-topped clusters at the end of stems that may reach to a height of three feet. Smaller than daisies, and without the protruding central disk of chamomile, feverfew blossoms have yellow centers consisting of tightly-bunched tubular florets surrounded by creamy white rays. Bees seem to avoid feverfew, deterred by its pungent aroma. The plant self-seeds freely, and thrives in full sun or partial shade in most soil.


General use

Feverfew leaves and flowers are used medicinally. Among its many uses, the herb has become a popular and proven herbal remedy for the treatment of migraine headaches. This important use of the plant was recorded as far back as 1633 by the British herbalist Gerard. With frequent use, over time, feverfew can reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine headaches and allay nausea and vomiting.

It is most effective when used as a preventive. It acts to inhibit serotonin and histamine, substances that dilate blood vessels, and helps to prevent the spasms in blood vessels that trigger migraine headaches. This much-researched herb has been shown to inhibit production of leukotines and other inflammatory substances. It is an effective remedy for relieving the pain and inflammation of arthritis and alleviating hay fever, asthma and other allergy symptoms.

Other traditional uses of feverfew dating back to ancient Greece and Rome include its use as an emmenagogue, which is an infusion taken in cases of sluggish menstruation to relieve congestion and promote periodic flow. The herb has also been used after childbirth to help expel the placenta.

Feverfew was valued in past centuries for its believed protection against the plague and the bite of mad dogs. In the seventeenth century the herbalist John Parkinson recommended feverfew as a remedy to speed recovery from opium overdose. It has also been used in treating alcoholic delirium tremens, and to expel intestinal worms.

Feverfew illustration

The English physician Culpeper recommended an external application of the fresh herb to treat ague, as the disease malaria was once called. Feverfew is a bitter digestive and liver tonic. A hot infusion may reduce fever and congestion from colds. The infusion, taken cold, has tonic properties. Feverfew may relieve mild depression, promote restful sleep, and ease the nerve pain of sciatica and shingles. Externally the strong infusion is an antiseptic skin wash for treatment of insect stings and bites. The wash may also be used as an insect repellent.

Feverfew leaves and stems, gathered fresh, may be used as a dye plant, with a chrome mordant, to produce a light green-yellow color in natural fibres such as wool. Feverfew flowers have a purgative action if ingested, and if the blossom heads are carried into areas where bees are located, the insects will fly away.

The active compounds in feverfew include sesquiterpene lactones, predominantly parthenolide. Other phytochemicals include pyrethrin, volatile oils, tannins, bitter resin, and flavonoids.


Preparations

Feverfew should be harvested just as the plant comes into flower and before the blossoms are fully open. Leaves are removed from the stalks and dried on paper-lined trays in a light, airy room, away from direct sunlight. The dried herb should be stored in clearly-labeled, tightly-sealed, dark glass containers.

Capsules: Feverfew leaf in capsule form, at a 250 mg daily dose, is recommended for medicinal use. It may take four to six weeks before the herb provides noticeable relief. Studies of some commercially-prepared capsules revealed that many did not contain a sufficient quantity of the active ingredient to be medicinally effective.

Feverfew may be more medicinally potent when gathered fresh. Three to four fresh leaves, taken daily over a period of time are medicinally effective. A certified practitioner can help determine the most effective and safest levels for individual cases.

Syrup: Fresh feverfew leaf can be added to honey, or to a simple sugar syrup. The honey will act as a preservative and mask the bitter taste of the herb.

Infusion: Two to three teaspoons of chopped, fresh feverfew leaves are placed in a warmed container. One cup of fresh, nonchlorinated boiled water is added to the herbs and the mixture is covered. The tea is infused for about 15 minutes, then strained. A stronger infusion, using double the amount of leaf and steeping twice as long, is useful as a skin wash for repelling insects, or soothing inflammations and wounds.

The strong infusion has also been used as a mouthwash following tooth extraction. The prepared tea will store for about two days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Dosage: Feverfew may be enjoyed by the cupful three times a day.

Tincture: Combine four ounces of finely-cut fresh, or powdered dry herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the plant parts. Place the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 30 drops of the tincture three times a day.

Precautions

Since herbal preparations are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumers in the United States should check the labels of commercial products carefully for dosage instructions and the part(s) of the plant used for or contained in the product. A 2002 study of commercial feverfew preparations found wide variations in the recommended dosages and parthenolide contents of the products that were tested.

The researchers found that “.. intake of parthenolide would range from 0.06 to 9.7 mg/day, a 160-fold variation.” Any adverse effects from feverfew preparations or any other herbal products sold as dietary supplements should be reported to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, listed under Resources.

Feverfew should not be used by pregnant or lactating women. Children under two years of age should not be given feverfew. Chewing the fresh leaves may irritate the mucous membranes in the mouth causing mouth ulcers in some persons. Traditionally the fresh herb was enclosed between slices of bread to minimize the irritation and mask the bitter taste of the fresh leaves. Persons on prescribed blood-thinning drugs should not ingest feverfew as it might interfere with the rate of blood clotting.

Side effects

Feverfew is a safe herb of proven medicinal value. No side effects are reported when taken in designated therapeutic doses. Some cases of contact dermatitis and airborne dermatitis, however, have been reported by researchers in Denmark and the United States.

Interactions

According to the PDR For Herbal Medicines, feverfew may interact with anti-thrombotic medications, including aspirin and warfarin. The tannins in feverfew have been reported to interfere with iron absorption in persons who take supplemental iron.

Taking NSAIDs together with feverfew will decrease the beneficial effects of the herb.

Fibrocystic breast disease

Fibrocystic breast disease

Fibrocystic breast disease is a general term that refers to a variety of symptoms and diagnoses, including breast lumpiness, tenderness, and a wide range of vaguely-defined benign breast conditions. The term is also used diagnostically to describe the appearance of breast tissues viewed under the microscope, on x-ray film, or on ultrasound equipment.

Description

There is no such thing as a typical or normal female breast. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes, with varying textures from smooth to extremely lumpy. The tissues of the female breast change in response to hormone levels, normal aging, nursing (lactation), weight shifts, and injury. To further complicate matters, the breast has several types of tissue, each of which may respond differently to changes in body chemistry.

Fibrocystic breast disease is clearly not a single, specific disease process. Variations or changes in the way the breast feels or looks on an x ray may cause the condition to be called “fibrocystic change.” Other names have been used to refer to this imprecise and ill-defined term: mammary dysplasia, mastopathy, chronic cystic mastitis, indurative mastopathy, mastalgia, lumpy breasts, or physiologic nodularity.


Estimates vary, but 40–90% of all women have some evidence of fibrocystic condition, change, or disease. It is most common among women ages 30–50, but may be seen at other ages.

Causes & symptoms

Fibrocystic condition refers to technical findings. This discussion will focus on symptoms a woman experiences, which may fall under the general category of the fibrocystic condition.

The breast is not a soft, smooth, pulpy organ. It is actually a type of sweat gland. Milk, the breasts’ version of sweat, is secreted when the breast receives appropriate hormonal and environmental stimulation.

The normal breast contains milk glands, with their accompanying ducts, or pipelines, for transporting the milk. These complex structures may not only alter in size, but can increase or decrease in number as needed. Fibrous connective tissue, fatty tissue, nerves, blood and lymph vessels, and lymph nodes, with their different shapes and textures, lie among the ever-changing milk glands. This explains why a woman’s breasts may not feel uniform in texture, and why “lumpiness” may wax and wane.

Fibrocystic condition is the tenderness, enlargement, and/or changing lumpiness that many women encounter just before or during their menstrual periods. At this time, female hormones are preparing the breasts for pregnancy, by stimulating the milk-producing cells and storing fluid. Each breast may contain as much as three to six teaspoons of excess liquid. Swelling, with increased sensitivity or pain, may result. If pregnancy does not occur, the body reabsorbs the fluid, and the engorgement and discomfort are relieved.

These symptoms range from mildly annoying in some women to extremely painful in others. The severity of the sensations may vary from month to month in the same woman. Although sometimes distressing, this experience is the body’s normal response to routine hormonal changes.

This cycle of breast sensitivity, pain, and/or enlargement can also result from medications. Some hormone replacement therapies used for post-menopausal women can produce these effects. Other medications, primarily, but not exclusively, those with hormones, may also provoke these symptoms.

Breast pain unrelated to hormone shifts is called “noncyclic” pain. This area-specific pain is also called “trigger-zone breast pain,” and it may be continuous, or may be felt intermittently. Trauma, such as a blow to the area, or a breast biopsy performed several years before, or sensitivity to certain medications may also underlie this type of pain. Fibrocystic condition may be cited as the cause of otherwise unexplained breast pain.


Lumps, apart from those clearly associated with hormone cycles, may also be placed under the heading of fibrocystic condition. These lumps stand out from enlarged general breast tissue. The obvious concern with such lumps is cancer, although noncancerous lumps also occur. Two noncancerous types, fibroadenomas and cysts, are discussed here.

Fibroadenomas are tumors which form in the tissues outside the milk ducts. The cause of fibroadenomas is unknown. They generally feel smooth and firm, with a somewhat rubber-like texture. Typically a fibroadenoma is not attached to surrounding tissue, and will move slightly when touched. They are most commonly found in adolescents and women in their early 20s but can arise at any age.

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs in the breast. They probably develop as ducts become clogged with old cells in the process of normal emptying and filling. Cysts usually feel soft and round or oval. However, a cyst deep within the breast may feel hard, as it pushes up against firmer breast tissue. A woman with a cyst may experience pain, especially if it increases in size before her menstrual cycle, as many do. Women age 30–50 are most likely to develop cysts.


Sometimes one area of breast tissue persistently feels thicker or more prominent than the rest of the breast. This may be caused by hardened scar tissue and/or dead fat tissue from surgery or trauma. Often the cause of such tissue is unknown.

A number of other breast problems which are benign or noncancerous may be placed under the heading of fibrocystic condition. These include disorders which may lead to breast inflammation (mastitis), infection, nipple discharge, dilated milk ducts, milk-filled cyst, wart-like growth in the duct, and excess growth of fibrous tissue around the glands.

Diagnosis

Breast cancer is the concern in most cases of an abnormal breast symptom. A newly discovered breast lump should be brought to the attention of a family physician or an obstetrician-gynecologist. A physical examination of the area is usually performed. Depending on the findings, the patient may be referred for tests.

The most common tests are mammography and breast ultrasound. A cyst may be definitively diagnosed by ultrasound. To relieve the discomfort, the patient may choose to have the cyst suctioned, or drained. If there is any question as to the fluid diagnosis, the fluid is sent for analysis.

If a lump cannot be proven benign by mammography and ultrasound, a breast biopsy may be considered. Tissue is removed through a needle to obtain a sample of the lump. The sample is examined under the microscope by a pathologist, and a detailed diagnosis regarding the type of benign lesion or cancer is established.

A ductogram evaluates nipple discharge. A very fine tube is threaded into the duct, dye is injected, and the area is looked at for diagnosis. Other breast conditions such as inflammation or infection are usually recognized on the basis of suspicious history, such as breast-feeding and characteristic symptoms such as pain, redness, and swelling. A positive response to appropriate therapies will support the diagnosis.

Treatment

Warm soaks, heating pads, or ice packs may provide comfort. A well-fitted support bra worn day and night can minimize physical movement and do much to relieve breast discomfort. Breast massage may promote removal of excess fluid from tissues and alleviate symptoms. Massaging the breast with castor oil, straight or infused with herbs or diluted essential oils, can help reduce and dissipate fibroadenomas as well as keep women in touch with changes in their breasts.

Many women have reported relief of symptoms when caffeine was reduced or eliminated from their diets. Decreasing salt intake before and during the period when breasts are most sensitive may also ease swelling and discomfort. Vitamins A, B complex, and E and selenium supplements have been reported to be helpful.

Because fat promotes estrogen production, and estrogen is thought to be linked to breast tenderness, low-fat diets and elimination of dairy products also seem to decrease soreness for some women. Restricting salt intake may also help reduce fluid retention and lessen breast pain. It may take several months to realize the effects of these various treatments.

Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis), flax oil, and fish oils have been reported to be effective in relieving cyclic breast pain for some women. In addition, a focus on liver cleansing is important to assist the body in conjugation and elimination of excess estrogens. The herb chaste tree (Vitex angus-castus) can be used to help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including breast tenderness.

A Chinese herbalist may recommend Herba cum Radice Asari with Radix Angelicae Sinensis and Flos Carthami Tinctorii for painful breast lumps, or Rhizoma Cyperi Rotundi with Radix Bupleuri and Fructus Trichosanthis for breast masses that swell around the time of menstruation.

Allopathic treatment

A lump that has been proven benign can be left in the breast. Some women may choose to have a lump such as a fibroadenoma surgically removed, especially if it is large. Infections are treated with warm compresses and antibiotics. Lactating women are encouraged to continue breastfeeding, as it promotes drainage and healing. A serious infection may progress to form an abscess which may need surgical drainage.

Once a specific disorder within the broad category of fibrocystic condition is identified, treatment can be prescribed. Symptoms of cyclical breast sensitivity and engorgement may be treated with diet, medication, and/or physical modifications.

Over-the-counter analgesics (pain relievers) such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) may be recommended. In some cases, treatment with hormones or hormone blockers may prove successful. Birth control pills may be prescribed.

Expected results

Most benign breast conditions carry no increased risk for the development of breast cancer. However, a small percentage of biopsies will uncover overgrowth of tissue in a particular pattern in some women that indicates a 15–20% risk of developing breast cancer over the next 20 years. Strict attention to early detection measures, such as annual mammograms, is especially important for these women.

Prevention

No way has yet been proven to prevent the various manifestations of fibrocystic condition from occurring. Some alternative practitioners believe that elimination of foods high in methylxanthines (primarily coffee and chocolate) can decrease or reverse fibrocystic breast changes.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is described as inflammation of the fibrous or connective tissue of the body. Widespread muscle pain, fatigue, and multiple tender points characterize these conditions. Many individuals with fibromyalgia describe the symptoms as similar to the aches and pains of a severe case of the flu. Fibrositis, fibromyalgia, and fibromyositis are names given to a set of symptoms believed to be caused by the same general problem.

Description

Fibromyalgia is more common than previously thought, with as many as 3-6% of the population affected by the disorder. Fibromyalgia is more prevalent in adults than children, with more women affected than men, particularly women of childbearing age.

Causes & symptoms

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is not known. Sometimes it occurs in several members of a family, suggesting that it may be an inherited disorder. People with fibromyalgia are most likely to complain of three primary symptoms: muscle and joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.


Pain is the major symptom with aches, tenderness, and stiffness of multiple muscles, joints, and soft tissues. The pain also tends to move from one part of the body to another. It is most common in the neck, shoulders, chest, arms, legs, hips, and back. Although the pain is present most of the time and may last for years, the severity of the pain may fluctuate.

Symptoms of fatigue may result from the individual’s chronic pain coupled with anxiety about the problem and how to find relief. The inflammatory process also produces chemicals that are known to cause fatigue. Other common symptoms are tension headaches, difficulty swallowing, recurrent abdominal pain, diarrhea, and numbness or tingling of the extremities. Stress, anxiety, depression, or lack of sleep can increase symptoms. Intensity of symptoms is variable ranging from gradual improvement to episodes of recurrent symptoms.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is difficult and frequently missed because symptoms of fibromyalgia are vague and generalized. Coexisting nerve and muscle disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, spinal arthritis, or Lyme disease may further complicate the diagnostic process. Presently, there are no tests available to specifically diagnose fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made after ruling out other medical conditions with similar symptoms.

Because of the emotional distress experienced by people with this condition and the influence of stress on the symptoms themselves, fibromyalgia has often been labeled a psychological problem. Recognition of the underlying inflammatory process involved in fibromyalgia has helped promote the validity of this disease.

Fibromyalgia symptoms

The American College of Rheumatology has developed standards for fibromyalgia that health care practitioners can use to diagnose this condition. According to these standards, a person is thought to have fibromyalgia if he or she has widespread pain in combination with tenderness in at least 11 of the 18 sites known as trigger points. Trigger point sites include the base of the neck, along the backbone, in front of the hip and elbow, and at the rear of the knee and shoulder.

Treatment

There is no known cure for fibromyalgia. Therefore, the goal of treatment is successful symptom management. Treatment usually requires a combination of therapies, exercise, and lifestyle adjustments. Adequate rest is essential in the treatment of fibromyalgia. The diet should include a large variety of fruits and vegetables, which provide the body with trace elements and minerals that are necessary for healthy muscles.

Avoidance of stimulating foods or drinks (such as coffee) and medications like decongestants prior to bedtime is advised. A patient’s clear understanding of his or her role in the recovery process is imperative for successful management of this condition.


Treatments found to be helpful include heat and occasionally cold compress applications. A regular stretching program is often useful. Aerobic activities focusing on increasing the heart rate are the preferred forms of exercise over most other forms of exertion. Exercise programs need to include good warm-up and cool-down sessions, with special attention given to avoiding exercises causing joint pain. Hydrotherapy exercises (exercises in a pool or tub) may be useful in providing a low impact exercise environment while soothing muscle and joint pain.

Massage therapy can be helpful, especially when a family member is instructed on specific massage techniques to manage episodes of increased symptoms. Short sessions are most helpful as repetitious movement can aggravate the condition. Specific attention to mental health, including psychological consultation, may also be important, since depression may precede or accompany fibromyalgia.

Relaxation exercises, yoga, aromatherapy, guided imagery, and other relaxation therapies can be useful in easing stress and promoting overall well-being. Acupuncture can be very helpful for symptom relief and in easing the general condition.

Herbalists and aromatherapists may recommend tub soaks or compresses with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobilis), or juniper (Juniperus communis) to soothe muscle and joint pain.

Allopathic treatment

People with fibromyalgia often need a rheumatology consultation (a meeting with a doctor who specializes in disorders of the joints, muscles, and soft tissue) to decide the cause of various rheumatic symptoms, to be educated about fibromyalgia and its treatment, and to exclude other rheumatic diseases. A treatment program must be individualized to meet the patient’s needs. The rheumatologist, as the team leader, enlists and coordinates the expertise of other health professionals in the care of the patient.

If diet, exercise, and adequate rest do not relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia, medications may be prescribed. Medications prescribed and found to have some benefit include antidepressant drugs, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Expected results

Fibromyalgia is a chronic health problem. The symptoms sometimes improve and at other times worsen, but they often continue for months to years.

Prevention

There is no known or specific prevention for fibromyalgia. However, similar to many other medical conditions, remaining as healthy as possible with a good diet, safe exercise, and adequate rest is the best prevention.

Fish oil

Fish oil

Fish oils are derived from such cold-water fish as salmon, cod, tuna, or mackerel. They have recently acquired a new visibility as dietary supplements because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, together with the omega-6 fatty acids, are important components of a healthful diet.

The body cannot manufacture them, therefore they must be obtained from grains, fruits, vegetable oils, and other foods. In addition, people should consume a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Some researchers believe that these two types of fatty acids should be consumed in a 1:1 ratio, while others maintain that people should obtain several times more omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids from their diet.

In either case, the fact that fish oils are high in omega-3 fatty acids may help people to maintain a good balance between the two types of fatty acids. The most important types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils are eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body needs EPA to produce prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that help to protect the heart and the cell membranes. DHA is required for the normal development of the brain, the eyes, and the reproductive system.


General use

In general, fish oils are recommended as dietary supplements to lower the levels of triglycerides in the blood, counteract inflammation in various parts of the body, and thin the blood.

Heart disease and stroke

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils increase the concentrations of good cholesterol (high density lipoproteins, HDL) in the blood while decreasing the concentrations of bad cholesterol (triglycerides). They also lower the total cholesterol level.

Furthermore, these omega-3 oils protect the heart by preventing the formation of blood clots and fatty deposits (plaque) on the arterial walls. In people with coronary heart disease, fish oils may help to reduce the risk of blood clots in the brain or in the lungs; pain associated with angina; and the risk of cardiac arrythmias.

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in clinical studies. Investigation of the possible benefits of fish oils began when researchers discovered that Eskimos rarely suffer from heart attacks or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) even though their diet is high in fat from fish, seals, and whales. Because these sources of fat have a high omega-3 fatty acid content, it was assumed that the type of fatty acid that they contained helped to protect the Eskimos from the usual consequences of high-fat diets.

Later studies confirmed that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids decrease the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and abnormal heart rhythms. In one study of 20,551 doctors, those who ate at least one fish meal per week cut their risk of heart attacks in half compared to those who ate fish once a month or less. In the five-year Lyon study, men who followed a Mediterranean diet with emphasis on omega-3-rich oils, fish, fruits, and vegetables had their heart attack rates reduced by 70% compared to subjects in the control group.

One question, however, is whether fish oil used by itself as a dietary supplement is as effective as a diet high in fish, since the two are not the same. One open trial of 11,324 people who were followed for three to five years found that fish oil did reduce the risk of death from heart attack. This study, however, was not a double-blind study, and its results cannot be taken as conclusive.

Fish oil

High blood pressure

Fish oils may help to control high blood pressure. Several studies have shown that taking fish oil can lower blood pressure. On the other hand, a 1997 study involving 2,000 subjects found no significant effect.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Fish oil may be useful in managing the symptoms of early rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A significant reduction in joint tenderness, morning stiffness, and fatigue, coupled with an increase in grip strength, has been observed in patients taking fish oil capsules. Fish oil appears to reduce the symptoms of RA without side effects, and to increase the effectiveness of standard medications for it. Fish oil does not, however, appear to slow the progress of RA.

Asthma

It has been claimed that fish oils reduce inflammation of the airways and may prevent asthma attacks. According to one author, allergic disorders such as asthma may be triggered by too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 fats in the diet. Two studies undertaken in 1994 and 1996 respectively, however, found no benefits from using fish oil in the management of asthma.


Psoriasis and autoimmune disorders

Several small studies indicate that fish oil may be helpful in treating psoriasis, which is an inflammatory disorder of the skin; in lupus; and in Raynaud’s phenomenon, an autoimmune disorder in which the patient’s hands and feet are abnormally sensitive to cold and emotional stress. With respect to the Raynaud’s patients, small double-blind studies showed that very high doses of fish oil reduce their responses to cold.

It appears, however, that doses as high as 12 g of fish oil daily are necessary to provide this effect. With respect to lupus, a small study of 30 subjects found that 14 out of 17 patients given daily doses of 20 g of EPA derived from fish oil had significant improvement. Subjects given a placebo either showed no improvement or got worse.

Osteoporosis

When taken together with calcium, essential fatty acids may help to protect women from osteoporosis. One 18-month study of 65 postmenopausal women found that those who were given a combination of omega-6 fatty acids (GLA) and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil together with calcium had higher bone density and fewer fractures than those who were given the calcium and a placebo.

Gynecological problems

Fish oil supplements may be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and painful periods. A number of different substances that are high in fatty acids, including flaxseed oil and GLA as well as fish oil, have been recommended for painful menstrual periods. One four-month study of adolescents suggests that fish oil is useful in treating this condition.

Forty-two young women were divided into two groups; half received a daily dose of 6 g of fish oil for two months, followed by two months of placebo. The other half received the placebo and fish oil in reverse order. The results indicated that the subjects had significantly less menstrual pain while taking the fish oil.

Bipolar disorder and depression

Fish oil does appear to offer considerable benefits to people with bipolar disorder. A four-month double-blind study of 30 subjects indicated that fish oil improves emotional stability and helps to prevent relapses. Of the 14 persons who took fish oil, 11 stayed well or improved, while only six out of 16 subjects given placebos stayed well.

A 2001 report looked at the effects of fish oil on mood and depression. Two large studies showed a strong connection between rates of depression and bipolar disorder in countries with high amounts of fish in diets. Although researchers cannot say that fish oil is the only reason for the difference, evidence continues to mount that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may work as mood stabilizers.

Other conditions

Fish oil has been touted as a useful treatment for diabetic neuropathy, allergies, migraine headaches, Crohn’s disease, gout, and ulcerative colitis, but there has been little systematic research involving these applications. In addition, health food manufacturers list hair loss, memory problems, muscle strain, failing eyesight, liver complaints, rickets, and dental problems as ailments that can be treated with fish oil. No clinical studies have been cited in support of these claims.

Early studies in laboratories indicate that fish oils might prolong life in people with automimmune disorders like diabetes. Early results show that a diet high in fish oils helped improve immune system function in these patients.

Unique benefit of fish oil

Preparations

There is no minimum daily requirement of fish oil as such, but a healthy diet should supply at least 5 g of essential fatty acids every day. Typical doses of fish oil are 3–9 g daily, although some participants in research studies have taken much higher doses. If fish oil is taken as a dietary supplement, it should be taken in large enough doses to supply about 1.8 g of EPA and 0.9 g of DHA on a daily basis.

Fish oil capsules are available in health food stores as over-the-counter items; prices range from $7 for 180 capsules of Norwegian cod liver oil to $14 for 180 capsules of salmon oil. Capsules of tuna oil and halibut liver oil are also available from several commercial suppliers.

Precautions

Fish oil can easily become rancid. The capsules can be stored in the refrigerator to slow the rate of oxidation. Another option is to purchase capsules that have added vitamin E.

The type of fish oil may make a difference. Although cod liver oil is the easiest form to obtain, it can cause a buildup of vitamin A and vitamin D in the body because these two vitamins are fat-soluble. Pregnant women should not take more than 2,500 IU of vitamin A per day because higher amounts can cause birth defects.

Other adults should not consume more than 5,000 IU of vitamin A per day. Vitamin D can produce toxicity when taken at levels above 1,000 IU daily for long periods of time. Persons who obtain their fish oil from cod liver oil should check the label to see how much vitamin A and vitamin D it contains. It may be prudent to take salmon oil, mackerel oil, or oil from other coldwater fish.

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should talk to their physicians before taking fish oil supplements or any other medications.

Because fish oil can thin the blood, it should not be taken together with aspirin and other nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, or over-the-counter pain killers), Coumadin (warfarin), or other anti-clotting medications. Fish oil does not seem to cause problems with bleeding when it is taken by itself, however.

Side effects

Fish oil generally appears to be safe when taken as a dietary supplement. The most common side effects are mild indigestion or a fishy taste in the mouth.

Interactions

Fish oil supplements may interact with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), warfarin, or other anti-clotting medications to cause excessive bleeding.