Do You Know the Difference Between Fibromyalgia and Arthritis?

Fibromyalgia is often confused with other health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis. Why is this condition often misdiagnosed? Dr. Tina Bunch, ARC rheumatologist, explains in The Health Journal.

Do You Know the Difference Between Fibromyalgia and Arthritis?
Excerpt from The Health Journal by Marie Albiges

Fibromyalgia and arthritis are two very different diseases, but each can be easily confused with the other and both can be easily misdiagnosed.

Fibromyalgia, a disease that causes widespread, chronic pain throughout the body, is hard to diagnose, says Dr. Tina Bunch, a rheumatologist at Austin Regional Clinic. There’s no blood test to determine if you have the disease, and x-rays only rule out what it’s not. Bunch points out it’s really a clinical diagnosis—patients describe how they feel and doctors go off that.

“A lot of physicians are wary about labeling patients as having fibromyalgia,” she says. Instead, they send them to a rheumatologist like her.

Arthritis is a little easier to diagnose, but there are two types: rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects about one percent of the population, and the more common osteoarthritis, which affects 30 to 40 percent of the population.

Comparatively, fibromyalgia affects between five and seven percent of the population, according to Bunch.

Patients suffering from osteoarthritis are usually older and have a certain area of the body in which they feel pain, such as their knees or lower back.

In comparison, on top of the widespread pain, people suffering from fibromyalgia often have fragmented sleep patterns, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, migraines and joint and muscle pain.

“The more active they are, the more they hurt,” says Bunch.

Rheumatoid arthritis is different in that the pain and stiffness start when the patient gets out of bed and gradually lessen as the day goes on. It’s an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues as if they were foreign invaders, such as a virus. Rheumatoid arthritis is usually grouped together with fibromyalgia.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Some research shows fibromyalgia can commonly occur with rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with both diseases usually feel greater pain, joint tenderness, decreased physical and mental function and a lower quality of life. They tend to be in poorer health and may also suffer from illnesses like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

According to Adrienne Dellwo, an experienced journalist diagnosed with fibromyalgia more than 10 years ago, women are more likely to get both diseases. “Researchers don’t know what causes either fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis,” she says. “But unlike fibromyalgia, a blood test can usually distinguish rheumatoid arthritis from other forms of arthritis.”

Bunch says there are two camps of treatment for these painful diseases. The first type of treatment is a mood stabilizer that increases serotonin and norepinephrine to help boost neurotransmitters.

The second type of treatment is a medicine that dials down the nerve stimuli, thus reducing the amount of pain signals reaching the nervous system.

Lifestyle changes can also make a difference in symptoms, according to Bunch. She notes some studies show aerobic exercise for people diagnosed with fibromyalgia is critical and that any kind of physical activity, including walking, gardening or swimming, may help alleviate some of the symptoms.

“We want people to be active no matter what,” she says. “If you’re feeling symptoms of either fibromyalgia or arthritis, call your primary care doctor. He or she will run through your medical history, eliminate other illnesses by running some tests, and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist.”


For more information about fibromyalgia check out the ARC Health Library. Learn more here about ARC’s rheumatology program including ongoing clinical research.

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