By Donna Gregory Burch.
Within six months of my fibromyalgia diagnosis, it was evident to me that recovery was not going to come from a conventional medical doctor (MD) doling out prescription medications. I have way too many health problems for them to be solved during a routine 15-minute doctor’s visit.
I haven’t seen my fibromyalgia specialist since 2014, and I doubt I ever will. I’ve given up on the conventional medical model because it is a dismal failure when it comes to treating chronic conditions like fibromyalgia.
Now please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying every conventional MD is bad. There are still some good doctors within our medical system.
But if you have fibromyalgia, you’re never going to get better if you rely on standard medical treatment as it exists today. Here’s why the conventional medical system is failing the fibromyalgia community and what to do instead.
Reason #1: Fibromyalgia is complicated.
Conventional MDs are trained to listen to symptoms, diagnose the cause and prescribe a treatment within a short duration of time.
But fibromyalgia is not like the common cold or a urinary tract infection. It doesn’t go away by taking medicine for a week.
Fibromyalgia symptoms are numerous, random and diverse. Multiple systems in the body are affected. Put simply, fibromyalgia causes too many problems for a conventional MD to manage within the confines of the current system.
Reason #2: MDs don’t have the time.
As I alluded to earlier, the average doctor’s visit is about 15 minutes in length. That works for simple complaints like toenail fungus. It doesn’t work when a patient comes in with a list of 20+ symptoms.
I understand why our doctors get overwhelmed. They’re used to 1 + 1 = 2, and we’re walking in and expecting them to be a master at calculus.
Reason #3: Most MDs don’t know jack about fibromyalgia.
We assume our doctors know more about our illness than we do, but sadly that’s usually not the case.
To be fair, it’s really not their fault. Fibromyalgia research is still in its infancy. We don’t know what causes it or how to effectively treat it.
And as new research slowly trickles out, it gets overlooked because doctors have little free time to read up on the latest studies.
What’s the result? Our doctors keep falling back on the same ineffective treatments they’ve been recommending for more than a decade: Exercise, Lyrica and Cymbalta. Oh joy! Those treatments may work for some of us, but not for most of us.
Reason #4: Many conventional MDs aren’t willing to try new things.
Even when the typical fibromyalgia treatments fail, too many doctors are afraid of deviating from the mainstream standard of care. When we ask about an emerging treatment we’ve read about online, we are met with a blank stare because 1. our doctor hasn’t heard of it and/or 2. it’s not on our doctor’s mental list of safe and approved treatments.
I’m sure this lack of risk-taking is partially due to the fear of medical malpractice lawsuits, but it’s a real detriment to patients who are basically sent home to suffer.
Reason #5: Fibromyalgia patients need more than symptom management.
We will never recover as long as our doctors focus only on managing symptoms. The truth is we need more than a doctor; we need a detective. We need a doctor who will look at our entire spectrum of symptoms and try to figure out the root cause of them. We don’t need someone who just keeps writing prescriptions in an attempt to cover them up.
As I have said many times before, our bodies do not go haywire for no reason. There is an underlying cause (or more likely, causes) for fibromyalgia!
We need doctors who are educated in thyroid and adrenal issues, heavy metal toxicity, mold illness, chronic Lyme, parasites, food sensitivities, mitochondrial dysfunction, calming the overreactive stress response, multiple chemical sensitivity and the myriad of other factors that can contribute to fibromyalgia symptoms.
If you ask your conventional doctor about any of the things I just listed, chances are you will get that blank stare again. They will have no clue what you’re talking about because their drug reps have never mentioned any of those things. (And yes, I’m fully aware of how jaded that last statement sounds.)
What to do when conventional medicine has failed
The only progress I’ve made in my health journey has been with the help of doctors who are not part of the conventional medical model. I’ve had the best results with functional medicine doctors and those who practice integrative medicine. I’ve also heard positive things about naturopaths and osteopaths.
What do all of these medical providers have in common? They tend to look at the health of the body as a whole - not just individual symptoms.
Unlike conventional MDs who usually take a band-aid approach to illness by prescribing drugs to cover up symptoms, these practitioners try to look deeper into the underlying causes of why the body has broken down. Then, they treat THAT, not just the symptoms.
Most of them understand that addressing chronic illness is much like peeling an onion. Oftentimes, there is no ONE cause for chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia. There are usually multiple reasons (see my list under #5 for a few of them) why a person has fallen ill. They take a more investigative approach to medical care.
So how do you find a doctor who practices in this way? A few resources include the Institute for Functional Medicine, Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the International College of Integrative Medicine. Each of these websites has a find-a-practitioner tool.
You can also try googling your locality name, fibromyalgia and one of these keywords: naturopath, osteopath, integrative physician, functional medicine.
Obviously not every doctor in these fields is going to be an expert in fibromyalgia. You’ll need to do your research to find one who is knowledgeable.
Another drawback is that some doctors in these practice areas do not accept health insurance. It may take some research to find one who does.
So, what should you do if there’s no way to access these types of practitioners?
In that case, I would try to find an open-minded doctor in your area and then purchase two copies of Dr. Ginevra Liptan’s book, “The Fibro Manual” - one for yourself and one for your MD.
Dr. Liptan is a fibromyalgia specialist who also has fibromyalgia. “The Fibro Manual” is a step-by-step guide for both patients and doctors, covering Dr. Liptan’s integrative approach to treating fibromyalgia.
There’s a chapter on how to effectively partner with your doctor on treatment and an appendix in the back with citations to research and other helpful information for your healthcare provider.
In my opinion, “The Fibro Manual” is the best fibromyalgia-related book on the market right now. Every fibromyalgia patient should read it.
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever worked with a fibromyalgia doctor who practices outside of the conventional medical model? What were your results?
Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained pain, fatigue and other symptoms. She was later diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. Donna covers news, treatments, research and practical tips for living better with fibromyalgia and Lyme on her blog, FedUpwithFatigue.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter. Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.