13 Triggers That Can Make Your Fibromyalgia More Worse

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by Lacey Little.

Sometimes life with fibromyalgia can feel like navigating through a minefield. There is a seemingly endless number of “mines” out there that can aggravate your symptoms, causing your fibromyalgia to flare-up. One must proceed with caution as even one misstep can have an impact on you for days as you try to recover from the pain or damage caused.

Understanding what these threats are and how to deal with them can help you as you try to navigate the fibromyalgia minefield. While everyone responds differently to the various threats or triggers, there are a handful of threats that all fibromyalgia sufferers should be aware of. We’ve pulled together a list of 15 different things that can cause your fibromyalgia symptoms to flare-up.

#1: MSG (Monosodium glutamate)

MSG is a flavor enhancer found in many of the processed foods we buy at the grocery stores – as well as in some fruits and vegetables. MSG and other food additives activate neurons that increase the sensitivity to pain in fibromyalgia sufferers. In a study of fibromyalgia patients conducted by researchers at the Malcolm Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Florida, they found that, “All had complete, or nearly complete, resolution of their symptoms within months after eliminating monosodium glutamate (MSG) or MSG plus aspartame from their diet.”[1]

The study concluded that, “The elimination of MSG and other excitotoxins from the diets of patients with fibromyalgia offers a benign treatment option that has the potential for dramatic results in a subset of patients.”

Potential health problems linked to MSG

Common foods containing MSG include frozen dinners, Chinese food, canned vegetables or soups, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, parmesan cheeses and more. When grocery shopping, check the label for MSG or Monosodium glutamate. There are also other names for it or other ingredients that have a high MSG content but aren’t required to say so. Look out for these ingredients on food labels:

Glutamic Acid (E 620)2

Glutamate (E 620)

Yeast Extract

Anything hydrolyzed

Caseinate

Gelatin

#2: Weather

As much as of fibromyalgia sufferers report that weather has an effect on their symptoms. The most common weather phenomena associated with flare-ups of fibromyalgia symptoms are extremes in temperature (too hot or too cold), changes in barometric pressure and rapid changes in weather. While research on the actual effects of weather is limited, it is clear by the overwhelming reports from actual sufferers that weather can play a role.

For some, taking extra precautions to combat the effects of weather (i.e. staying hydrated in extreme heat) can help minimize its impact on their fibromyalgia. In extreme cases, moving to different climates may help. In fact, Lyne Matalana, President of the National Fibromyalgia Association once remarked, “I know people who have packed up and moved their families because they felt another part of the country would be more comfortable for them. It can be that intense.”

#3: Over-exertion

As individuals coping daily with the symptoms of fibromyalgia, we know better than anyone that we need to pace ourselves. Even so, this is still one of the biggest traps for people living with fibromyalgia. It may be that we’re having a good day and we think our bodies can handle more than they can – or we might even know we’ve reached our limit but for whatever reason we keep pushing.

Regardless of your situation, over-exertion can have a lasting negative effect on your symptoms. Eventually, the pain will catch up and you may spend more time recovering than you would have had you not pushed the limits. It can take a lot of discipline to actually recognize your limits and pace yourself, so being aware of your body and its limits is important. Of course, there will also be a lot of days when your body never lets you get going in the first place, so “pacing yourself” isn’t a problem.

#4: Sugar (Simple Carbs)

Simple carbs, by definition, are carbohydrates made up of one or two sugars. They are a fast source of energy, but this temporary boost is usually followed by a crash in energy levels. Since fibromyalgia patients are also more sensitive to changes in blood sugar, simple carbs should be limited or eliminated from our diet.

In addition to affecting energy levels, the over-consumption of sugar can lead to other negative health outcomes such as nerve damage. The over-consumption of sugar causes our nerves to swell as water is drawn into them. At the same time, the sugar makes the outer layer of the nerve cells less flexible, causing them to crack and tear. Ultimately, this process can lead to nerve damage, often resulting in pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities.

Here are some of the most common simple carbs you’ll want to avoid:

Hey Sugar!

#5: Caffeine

If you suffer from fibromyalgia, there’s a good chance you struggle daily with fatigue and exhaustion. For many fibromyalgia patients, these are common symptoms. As such, things like coffee or energy drinks can seem like godsends to get you through the day. While they do provide a welcome boost in energy, the caffeine contained in these drinks can actually make your fibromyalgia worse and in many cases have an opposite effect on your energy levels.

#6: Diary

Many fibromyalgia sufferers are lactose intolerant, which can lead to symptoms such as bloating, gas, pain and cramping. If you suspect you might be lactose intolerant, try going without dairy for a few weeks to see if you notice any improvements. If you don’t want to eliminate dairy completely, try avoiding pasteurized dairy products and consume only raw, organic dairy foods. Some fibromyalgia patients have found this to be more tolerable.

#7: Lack of Sleep

Sleep is a bit of a conundrum for fibromyalgia sufferers. On the one hand, the symptoms of fibromyalgia can make it difficult to sleep – often leading to sleep problems such as insomnia. On the other hand, the lack of sleep can increase the sensitivity to pain and aggravate some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia. It is a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.

According to a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia in patients with chronic conditions may provide better (and more lasting) relief from insomnia than some prescription medications.[2] Regardless of the approach you take, getting the best night’s rest possible (under the circumstances) is essential if you suffer from fibromyalgia.

#8: Long Naps

Given the difficulties with sleep problems and the resulting fatigue often associated with fibromyalgia, taking naps during the day is often a necessity for many sufferers. While napping can be a necessity, it is best to avoid taking long, frequent naps. In a study of over one thousand adults suffering from fibromyalgia, researchers found a correlation between longer daytime naps and an increase in the severity of symptoms.[3]

With that in mind, the best approach may be to take shorter naps (a.k.a. power naps) throughout the day to help your body rest and rejuvenate without increasing your symptoms.

#9: Depression

Much like the sleep problems discussed earlier, fibromyalgia often gives rise to depression. Depression, in turn, can exacerbate the symptoms of fibromyalgia. This dangerous cycle can pull us down unhealthy mental, physical and emotional paths. While depression may be a bit taboo in our society, it is very real and affects people of all walks of life. Seeking professional help from a certified counselor or therapist is key to helping break the cycle and leading a happier, healthier life (mentally, physically and emotionally).

#10: Stress/Anxiety

Lets face it – there’s no avoiding stress, especially if you have a chronic illness like fibromyalgia. While stress in and of itself isn’t always a bad thing – the constant stress of life with a chronic illness can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress not only aggravates the symptoms of your fibromyalgia, it can also lead to other negative health outcomes like high blood pressure, diabetes and more.

Finding ways to constructively manage your stress will make a big difference in your day-to-day well-being. Whether it be mindfulness techniques like deep breathing and meditation or taking up fun or relaxing hobbies to ease your mind – look for ways to manage and release your stress productively.

MORE: 5 Ways Stress Affects Chronic Pain & What To Do About It

#11: Sensory Overload

Fibromyalgia patients are often more sensitive to things like loud noises, odors, bright lights and more. If the senses become overloaded, it can often trigger headaches or migraines, among other things. Avoiding situations where sensory overload may occur can save you from an unwanted flare-up of symptoms.

#12: Cold or Illness

The common cold can be bad enough even for someone in perfect health – so it can be downright awful for those of us already dealing with the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Since our immune systems are already being overworked, they can be more susceptible to common illnesses like the cold or flu. If a cold or other illness strikes, it can often take longer to recover from if you have fibromyalgia – thereby impacting your work, family and social life. Eating healthy and getting the vitamins and nutrients your immune system needs to keep up its daily fight against germs is critical.

#13: Smoking

Woman breaking cigarette in half

By now it’s clear that you should avoid (or quit) smoking no matter who you are. The list of negative health outcomes associated with smoking is seemingly endless. For fibromyalgia sufferers, however, there is even more reason to kick the habit. According to a study by the University of Illinois College of Medicine, fibromyalgia patients who smoked reported “significantly more pain, numbness, patient global severity, and functional difficulties than non-smokers.”[4]

While this list is not comprehensive and certainly doesn’t represent every potential threat to your fibromyalgia, they do represent some of the most common ones. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can go a long way in helping to improve your quality of life and reduce the severity of your fibromyalgia symptoms. What triggers or threats have you experienced that aren’t on this list? Share your experiences with us on our Facebook Page!

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