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Jennifer Smith: A Change of Scene Helped My Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia pain kept Jennifer stuck in bed during harsh upstate New York winters, but warmth and sunlight helped her get her life back.
By Cynthia Ramnarace
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The pain started in her lower back. Then it spread to her thighs, her knees. Maybe I'm running too much, thought Jennifer Smith, and she curtailed her two-mile jogs. As summer slipped into fall and then winter, Smith spent more time on the couch as the pain was joined by exhaustion and depression.
She was in Buffalo, N.Y., a place known for its snowy, cold winters. Feeling tired and depressed during the dark months wasn't uncommon. But as the pain worsened, Smith knew something else was going on. "It's not your typical, ‘oh I pulled a muscle' pain," says Smith. "It feels like having the flu. It's that deep muscle pain that you just can't seem to reach."
The pain became so severe that Smith, who worked from home as a public relations consultant, would type with her laptop propped on her stomach while lying in bed. "It was completely impractical," says Smith. "You can't live a life that way."
Doctors were stumped. You're depressed, they said. Or maybe it's hormones, they guessed, and then sent her for a battery of tests that yielded no answers. "At one point I was sitting in the doctor's office in tears, thinking to myself, ‘Am I going to have to bring my dad so they take me seriously?'" Smith says. "Here I was — a 33-year-old woman, professional, well educated, and yet I was not being heard."
It was Smith's own online research that led her to ask her doctor if she could have fibromyalgia, the chronic rheumatic condition that causes pain throughout the body but especially in 18 trigger points. Other symptoms include fatigue, sleep problems and temperature sensitivity. Fibromyalgia affects 5 million Americans, the vast majority of them women. "My doctor touched those tender points and I literally jumped in the chair," says Smith. "At that point he was flat out, ‘Yeah, this is what you have. No doubt about it.'"
For Smith, treatment included increasing the dosage of an anti-seizure medication, gabapentin, which Smith was already taking to control juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, a condition she had since childhood. But real relief came shortly around the time she was diagnosed, in March 2010, when she took a family trip to Raleigh, N.C. The weather was uncharacteristically warm for that time of year. Smith's symptoms eased instantly. As soon as she returned to Buffalo's cold damp spring, they returned. Once summer hit, they eased.
"I knew I had to get out of Buffalo," says Smith. "I had to take that step and venture out and leave family behind. It was the only way that I was going to be able to live a well-rounded life."
So in November 2010, Smith left her parents and her hometown for Coral Gables, Fla. The pain, fatigue, and depression eased.
Daily Life With Fibromyalgia: Jennifer's Tips
But it wasn't just the sunny climate that helped Jennifer get her life back. Following her doctor's advice, she started a low-impact cardio regimen. She walks, bikes, or swims five days a week and takes Pilates classes three or four days.
"When I am having the most severe pain, all I want to do is crawl into bed and try to hide from it," Smith, now 35, says. "But the best thing that you can do is throw on the sneakers, hit the pavement and go for a walk. Get outside, get in the sunshine, get the fresh air going, get your lungs working. Honestly, as I'm working out, I will feel the pain subsiding. It's such a crazy thing."
Here's some more advice from Smith on managing life with fibromyalgia:
- Don't be afraid to exercise."I was so nervous that exercise was going to make the pain worse," says Smith. "But I thought to myself, ‘Either it's going to get worse and I'll find out I can't do this, or it won't.' Surprisingly, just getting out for a walk made a huge difference."
- Get outside.The sunlight, fresh air, and being around other people can ease the depression.
- Find a workout that works for you.If walking is too difficult, try swimming, which is easier on the joints.
- Find the right medication.For Smith, increasing her anti-seizure medication was enough to take the edge off of her symptoms. She tried other medications but they left her feeling woozy. Keep experimenting until you find relief.
- Don't be shy about asking for help.Friends and family want to help but often don't know how. If you need help with meals, chores or errands, tell people exactly what you need.
- Instead of fighting the fatigue, give in to it.It's your body's way of telling you it needs rest.
- Keep up to date with the latest research.Read about fibromyalgia online and ask your doctor his opinion about the latest news. Education and knowledge are power, Smith says.
- Talk about your fibromyalgia."There are skeptics out there who think fibromyalgia isn't real," says Smith.
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