Fibromyalgia vs RA: How to tell the difference

fibromyalgia vs ra

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Fibromyalgia is primarily characterized by widespread pain. The locations include the right and left side of the body, as well as above and below the waist. However, many patients experience pain in just one or a few places. If you have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, you probably have quite a story to tell about finally getting a diagnosis. One of the main reasons that getting the diagnosis is so difficult is because fibro symptoms resemble the symptoms of other conditions, diseases, and disorders. Widespread pain, for example, is not limited to fibromyalgia.

In your quest for a fibro diagnosis, you no doubt encountered a discussion about rheumatoid arthritis, which is also commonly referred to as RA.  The reason you likely encountered a fibromyalgia vs RA discussion with your physician on within your personal research is that, in addition to widespread pain, both conditions produce other similar symptoms as well. These include:

  • Muscle pain
  • Morning stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of mobility and range of motion

Another similarity in the fibromyalgia vs RA debate are the flares or “flare ups.” The Mayo Clinic explains: “Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flare, alternate with periods of relative remission – when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.” While the flares are certainly similar, this is one key difference in fibromyalgia compared to RA: fibromyalgia does not cause joint deformation like rheumatoid arthritis does. That’s because RA is rooted in inflammation, unlike fibromyalgia.

Just What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease that attacks the joints. This leads to inflammation which results in swelling and pain around the joints. Over time the inflammation causes damage to the cartilage, as well as a loss of it. This in turn leads to less and less space between joints. The joints then become unstable and painful, even losing their mobility and sometimes leading to deformed joints. This damage is irreversible. So it is recommended that RA treatment is addressed quickly and aggressively.

Fibromyalgia vs RA: What If I Have Both?

Though it is certainly possible to suffer from fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis at the same time, these illnesses are definitely different. Even the medications used to treat them are different. In fact, having a correct diagnosis is critical for determining the correct medication. It is equally critical because ignoring RA symptoms and pushing through the joint pain can actually lead to irreparable damage.

If you are one of the few patients who suffers from both, make sure to find a knowledgeable physician who is experienced in treating both conditions. Good places to start are with a rheumatologist, neurologist, or an osteopath. Interestingly enough, the Arthritis Foundation explains that “people with other rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are at greater risk for fibromyalgia. For example, about 20 to 30 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis also develop fibromyalgia, although no one knows why.”

Other Similar Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic adds that approximately 40% of those with RA also experience symptoms that do not involve the joints. Understanding this helps explain why fibromyalgia vs RA is such a difficult thing to puzzle out. Rheumatoid arthritis effects other structures, including:

  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Lungs
  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Salivary glands
  • Nerve tissue
  • Bone marrow
  • Blood vessels

Compare those effected structures and how they relate to the following common symptoms of fibromyalgia:

  • Skin sensitivities, rashes
  • Itching, burning
  • Dry eyes, mouth
  • Vision problems
  • Muscle weakness, aching
  • Numbness, tingling
  • Dizziness
  • Pain

If you’re unsure about your diagnosis, it will be helpful to keep a journal of your pain so that you have specific details to discuss with your physician. Traditionally, women have been most effected by fibromyalgia. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates between 80-90% are women ages 18 and up. But the way it is tested is expanding, so more men are getting diagnosed with fibromyalgia as well. Similarly, the Arthritis Foundation says that rheumatoid arthritis effects nearly three times as many women as it does men. They add that while it does occur with men, it typically happens later in life for them. For women, RA begins between the ages of 30 and 60.

Were you misdiagnosed? Or do you suffer from both fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis? Tell us your fibromyalgia vs RA story, please!

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