Tanning beds provide potential pain relief for fibromyalgia patients

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Ultraviolet light may help relieve pain in fibromyalgia syndrome patients, according to a preliminary study at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center conducted by dermatology, rheumatology, and public health sciences researchers.

A report on the study appears in the January issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Steven R. Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Dermatology Research at Wake Forest Baptist, said that this study was an outgrowth of a previous tanning addiction study in which participants reported anecdotally some improvement in their back pain.

“We decided to look at fibromyalgia patients because there is such a big need for treatment,” Feldman said. “We knew from the tanning addiction study that the UV light was doing something for participants beyond the obvious.”

The recent study included 19 fibromyalgia patients who were exposed to both UV and non-UV rays in tanning beds for two weeks. Then they were divided into UV and non-UV groups for the next four weeks. All of the fibromyalgia patients received light treatments three times a week for a total of six weeks.

The participants were treated with sunless tanning lotions to tan all participants because tanning might have indicated which group was receiving exposure to UV light. They were asked to report on their levels of pain as well as their moods. UV exposure resulted in limited improvement in pain, well-being and relaxation compared with the non-UV group.

“People in the UV group reported a modest improvement,” Feldman said. “This was a small study and may indicate the need for a larger study.”

Fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain and tenderness in localized areas of the neck, torso and extremities. In addition to pain, patients can experience stiffness, fatigue, sleep disturbances and other symptoms. Other pain syndromes, such as irritable bowel syndrome or migraine headaches, are seen in individuals affected by fibromyalgia. The majority of the three to six million people who have fibromyalgia are women.

“Fibromyalgia syndrome is the most common cause of chronic diffuse pain. Unfortunately, currently available medical therapies offer meaningful improvement in symptoms for less than half of the patients,” according to Kenneth S. O’Rourke, M.D., a rheumatologist at Wake Forest Baptist and a researcher on the study. “The evaluation of alternative therapies for patients with fibromyalgia syndrome, based on our increased understanding of how pain signals are generated and sustained, is an important pursuit at many clinical research centers.”

Traditional treatments for fibromyalgia are medications, such as antidepressants, analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and non-pharmacologic approaches, most importantly regular participation in an exercise program.

In a previous tanning addiction study, participants getting UV light treatments reported improvement in their arthritis and back pain, Feldman said. That earlier study found that frequent tanning bed users may get more out of the experience than darker skin - exposure to ultraviolet light may produce a ‘relaxing’ effect that lures tanners back to the beds.

According to Feldman, this cannot be just a direct effect of warmth causing an increase in blood flow and a decrease in muscle spasm and tension because there was greater relaxation with UV compared to the non-UV bed users.

Dermatology fellow Sarah Taylor, M.D., participated in the study, as well as former Wake Forest Baptist researchers Fabian Camacho, M.D., and Mandeep Kaur, M.B.B.S., Joy Willard, R.N., and medical student Kristen LoSicco.



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