A purple fibromyalgia ribbon with a stethoscope against a white background.
20% to 30% of people who have fibromyalgia also have arthritis.

Are Fibromyalgia and Arthritis Related?

Fibromyalgia and arthritis are both conditions that cause chronic pain. They also share some other similarities in terms of symptoms and who they affect. However, the underlying causes of the two conditions are very different. So, are fibromyalgia and arthritis related? Let’s take a look.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain throughout the body. It also causes several other symptoms that affect patients to varying degrees. It is more common in women and tends to occur between the ages of 30 and 50.

Possible Causes

Nobody is sure exactly what causes fibromyalgia. However, most experts agree that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are involved. The condition often develops following a physically or emotionally stressful event, such as a severe illness, accident, operation, or bereavement.

It appears that these traumatic events cause imbalances in the nervous system, altering the way it responds to stimuli. This makes people with fibromyalgia more sensitive than usual, with things that would not normally be uncomfortable and cause pain.

What Is Arthritis?

The term arthritis means inflammation of the joints. There are many different types, with the most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints over time. It is more common in older people and those who are overweight. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. This means that the immune system becomes overactive and attacks the joints, causing inflammation.

Some other autoimmune disorders that cause joint inflammation include psoriatic arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Like fibromyalgia, many autoimmune conditions affect women more often than men.

Fibromyalgia and Arthritis Symptoms: Similarities and Differences

Fibromyalgia and arthritis can both cause symptoms like stiffness, loss of mobility and pain. However, the way that these symptoms present themselves can be quite different.

Fibromyalgia symptoms:

  • Localized pain to the muscles, soft tissues and joints
  • Tender spots on the back of the head, upper back, collarbone, elbows, buttocks and knees
  • The painful sensations usually feel like burning, stabbing or tingling
  • Does not change the joints
  • Pain may be accompanied by fatigue, sleep problems, poor concentration or memory, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, or depression

Arthritis symptoms:

  • Localized to specific joints
  • Hip and/or knee pain with osteoarthritis
  • Hands and/or feet pain with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Swelling around the joints
  • Joint deformities
  • Fatigue and sleep problems
  • Depression

As you can see, the symptoms of fibromyalgia and arthritis have some similarities but also significant differences. The type of arthritis that is most like fibromyalgia is rheumatoid arthritis, as both conditions can cause sleep problems and fatigue. Both also tend to affect women at around the same age. So, is this a coincidence or are fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis related?

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How Are Fibromyalgia and Arthritis Related?

Technically speaking, fibromyalgia and arthritis are not related as they have very different physiological causes. However, many people have both conditions, meaning there is often some overlap.

It seems that people with rheumatoid arthritis are at a higher risk of developing fibromyalgia. As many as 20% to 30% of people with the condition also have fibromyalgia.

One possible reason for this is that persistent, chronic pain can change the way the nervous system functions. It may become hypersensitive, leading to fibromyalgia. Therefore, it is possible that arthritis can cause fibromyalgia, but not the other way around.

Treatment Options for People with Fibromyalgia and Arthritis

Because of their different causes, treatments for people with fibromyalgia and arthritis vary. However, there are some options that can benefit both conditions at the same time.

Medication for Fibromyalgia

The most common treatments for fibromyalgia are medications to relieve pain and control other symptoms. However, traditional painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are often ineffective. Therefore, doctors may prescribe anti-seizure drugs or antidepressants instead. Both work by modifying signals in the nervous system to inhibit pain signals.

Medication for Arthritis

Since arthritis is the result of inflammation, anti-inflammatory medications are the most common treatments. They include non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen and stronger drugs like steroids.

In autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis, doctors may prescribe disease-modifying, anti-rheumatic drugs. These include a class of medications called biologics and the aim is to suppress the immune system, slowing the disease’s progression.

Lifestyle Changes

Making some positive lifestyle changes can benefit both fibromyalgia and arthritis. One of the most crucial things is getting enough regular, gentle exercise. Some good options to include are swimming, cycling, or yoga, as they do not put too much strain on the joints.

It is also important to get enough sleep as tiredness can increase sensitivity to pain. Introduce habits like dimming the lights in the evening, doing something relaxing before bed and avoiding caffeine in the evening. It is also helpful to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.

Hot and Cold Therapy

Warm baths, hot and cold packs, or heating and cooling creams are all useful ways to relieve pain. Experiment with a few different options to find out which works best.

Stress Management

Stress can worsen fibromyalgia symptoms. It may also add to inflammation as it increases production of the hormone cortisol. Therefore, it is essential to find ways to manage stress and relax. This could be a talking therapy such as counselling or CBT, meditation, or mindfulness.

Alternative Therapies

Some people find therapies like acupuncture and massage helpful for relieving pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia and arthritis. They can help to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and relax both the body and mind.