Tanning may help relieve pain of fibromyalgia

It affects up to six million people in the U.S. -- mainly women -- who can't get through the day without pain shooting through their bodies.

There are very few effective treatments for fibromyalgia, so one doctor decided to try a controversial way to treat his patients.

He says it works. Other dermatologists say it's dangerous!

A constant, aching pain put Laura Hemrick's body and brain in slow motion.

"All I could say to my doctors is, 'I feel like I've been hit by a truck,'" says Laura.

After more than 15 tests and six months of doctors appointments, she found out she had fibromyalgia -- a chronic condition that causes widespread pain, fatigue and fogginess.

"I see people, and I think, 'I've known you all my life, but I don't remember your name," Laura says.

Exercise provides some relief, but the drugs made her sick.

"I would deal with the pain before I go back to those again," Laura says.

Then, a dermatologist wrote a prescription that shocked her: spend time tanning.

"If I were to give a lecture to my dermatology colleagues about this, almost certainly some would find some tomatoes to throw at me," says Dr. Steven Feldman, a dermatologist at the Baptist Medical Center at Wake Forest University.

Dr. Feldman led a study that found fibromyalgia patients who were exposed to UV rays in a tanning bed over six weeks felt a decrease in pain compared to those who were in non UV beds.

He says the UV rays cause the skin to release endorphins -- feel-good molecules that ease pain and increase relaxation.

Other dermatologists say young people who use tanning beds have a 75-percent higher risk for melanoma.

"Just once using the tanning bed will give you enough DNA damage to increase your chance of skin cancer," says Dr. Shasa Hu, a dermatologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Laura says, so far, tanning is the only thing that provides relief.
"Nothing is completely free of any possible risk," says Dr. Feldman.

She's taking the risk because she says the alternative is to live in pain.

Laura spent 12 to 15 minutes, three times a week in a tanning booth to ease the pain.

Dr. Feldman says UV tanning beds have also been helpful in easing psoriasis. He would not recommend them for anyone who doesn't have these conditions.


BACKGROUND: According to the Mayo Clinic, fibromyalgia occurs in about 2 percent of the population in the United States. Women are more likely to develop the disorder, and the risk increases with age. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in muscles, ligaments and tendons. Patients with the condition also suffer from fatigue and have multiple tender points, which are places on the body where slight pressure can cause pain. These points may include the back of the head, areas between the shoulder blades, the tops of the shoulders, the front sides of the neck, the upper chest, the outer elbows, the upper hips, the sides of hips, and the inner knees. Symptoms of fibromyalgia often begin after a physical or emotional trauma, but in many cases, there is no triggering event.

OTHER CONDITIONS: Many patients with fibromyalgia also have co-existing conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, endometriosis, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, osteoarthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, restless legs syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis.

TREATMENTS: Treating the condition may include both medication and self-care. Some drugs like acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen may ease pain and stiffness. Doctors might also prescribe antidepressants or anti-seizure drugs for patients with fibromyalgia. Physical therapy may restore muscle balance and reduce pain for these patients. Counseling is another option that teaches patients how to deal with stressful situations.

TANNING, A NEW OPTION: According to a preliminary study conducted at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, ultraviolet light may help relieve pain in patients with fibromyalgia. The study, which was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, included 19 fibromyalgia patients who were exposed to both UV and non-UV light. The patients were asked to report on their levels of pain as well as their moods. They were then divided into a UV and non-UV group. All of the fibromyalgia patients received light treatments three times a week for a total of six weeks. Those in the UV group reported more improvements compared to those in the non-UV group. In a previous study, participants who received UV light treatments reported improvement in their arthritis and back pain.

TANNING DANGERS: While the Wake Forest study suggests tanning may benefit certain people, dermatologists warn about the dangers of tanning beds. In July, the World Health Organization declared UV radiation from tanning bed one of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation. In 1994, a Swedish study found women between 18 and 30 years old who visited tanning salons 10 times or more a year were seven-times more likely to develop melanoma. A study conducted at Dartmouth Medical School found that tanning bed users had 2.5-times the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5-times the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma.

Ann Hopkins, Public Relations Manager
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
Winston-Salem, NC
(336) 716-1280

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