Sufferers of the debilitating disorder fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) may find symptom relief in a form of therapy known as whole-body vibration exercise, a new study reports.

While the research on vibration exercise for treating FMS has been mostly spotty until now, a team of scientists from Indiana University have performed a pilot study that, they believe, holds interesting promise for future investigation. The therapy could help patients break the vicious cycle of avoiding exercise to avoid pain, only to gain weight and suffer more.

Lead author Tony Kaleth, associate professor in the University’s School of Physical Education and Tourism Management, explained there are definite hurdles to overcome before any sweeping claims can be made. "Our findings are promising,” he said in a statement, “but it is not entirely clear whether these improvements were the result of added vibration or just the effects of being more active.”

FMS has no known cause — or etiology — although scientists speculate it arises from a disconnect between a person’s nerves and the brain. This gap in understanding exists despite a widespread prevalence of the disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly five million American adults suffer from FMS. They experience morning stiffness, sleep disorders, cloudy memories or thought processes, and among women, who are most likely to suffer from FMS, painful menstrual periods.

For their current study, presented Thursday at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., Kaleth and his colleagues recruited a group of patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia to either stand, sit, or lie down on a machine with a vibrating platform. The ensuing vibrations caused the muscles to contract and relax, potentially alleviating any underlying muscular pain.

Ultimately, the technique is meant to simulate the effects of actual exercise, but in a more passive form. As Kaleth explains, due to the disorder’s symptoms many patients shy away from exercise because they feel it only intensifies the pain. "Over time, this can lead to additional weight gain, as well as accompanying chronic health conditions associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes,” Kaleth said.

With their initial success, the team hopes to bear out similar results in later studies that take a more rigorous approach to analyzing vibration exercise. Prior research has also found other modes of treatment, such as regular vitamin D supplement, may reduce patients’ chronic pain. Owing to the limits of pharmacological approaches, however, subjects’ depression and anxiety levels in the study did not subside.

The findings upheld the prevailing theory that fibromyalgia isn’t simply a misfiring of pain receptors. It’s a sign that the nerves beneath the skin are working properly, albeit too well. Kaleth and his team hope to gain a better understanding of how to relax these nerves with their follow-up investigation.

"Vibration training is increasingly being studied in clinical populations as a potential therapeutic mode of exercise training," Kaleth said. "Although the results are largely equivocal and in need of further study, studies have reported improvements in strength, muscle spasticity and pain in select populations."