Using EMDR to Treat Fibromyalgia

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Image: Piotr Krzeslak / Shutterstock

A Turkish study published in 2012 examined seven patients who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, ages 22-41, and included six women and one man. Since recent research had brought to light how often fibromyalgia patients also experience psychological trauma, this study focused on the psychotherapeutic approach of EMDR.

What is EMDR?

According to the EMDR Institute, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a fast-acting way to repair mental trauma. It was originally designed to treat distress due to traumatic memories, such as that associated with PTSD. It works by simulating the conditions needed for mental processing of information, specifically the conditions associated with REM sleep. For example, traumatic experiences in early childhood often go unprocessed mentally and emotionally. This is usually because the mind does not know how to comprehend the experience and so will often bury it. Thus, later in life the unprocessed or unresolved information will force itself to the surface in the form of psychological disorders and/or physical ailments, such as fibromyalgia.

The cause of fibromyalgia is still uncertain; however, we do know that many fibro patients have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. Recall that Morgan Freeman’s fibromyalgia has been linked to a horrific car accident, while Lady Gaga associates hers with a violent sexual assault. In these cases, EMDR treatments would be used to evaluate the memories of those traumatic events and facilitate processing. Having personally experienced such treatments, I can attest to both the fast action and EMDR’s efficiency. In just a few treatments, I was able to address a series of traumas. It did not erase the memory of these events. Rather, the events no longer defined me as an individual. More specifically, instead of being a debilitating part of my make-up, the events are now just things that I experienced in life.

Turkish Study Results

Before and after the EMDR trials began, each patient was evaluated for a variety of symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, including pain, depression, PTSD, sleep quality, and anger management. After five – eight treatments, there was a significant decrease in all measured areas, except for anger management which significantly increased. Using EMDR treatments for fibromyalgia patients was indeed so effective, that six out of the seven patients no longer met the criteria for fibromyalgia.

In fact, EMDR is so effective and has been studied so frequently that it is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense. The EMDR Institute adds, “More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy.  Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.  Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.” Remember that events that lead to PTSD are not limited to the battlefield. Think, then, of the possibilities for you and your fibromyalgia symptoms. Whether you have experienced a single trauma, a series of small traumas, or a lifetime of them, the potential to improve your fibromyalgia symptoms by addressing these in a controlled manner is tremendous.

Can EMDR Treat Trauma from Fibro?

Yes! Consider one fibromyalgia patient who went through EMDR for family issues and PTSD, “but it also helped me with my feelings of loss due to fibro.” She experienced loss and rejection from family and friends, her inability to work, and her damaged self-image. “The EMDR helped reinforce my belief in myself and gave me the energy and courage to speak up and not let” others drag her down.

Does it Hurt?

There is no physical pain involved in EMDR at all. To recreate the conditions in the brain necessary for REM sleep, patients are given external stimuli in the form of directed lateral eye movements, audio stimulation, or hand-tapping. EMDR facilitators require special training. To find a clinician near you who specializes in EMDR, use this directory and let us know how it works for you.