A graphic of cells showing how an autoimmune disease affects the body.
An autoimmune disease attacks healthy body cells.

Fibromyalgia vs Autoimmune Disease

Fibromyalgia is a chronic medical condition that causes pain and various other symptoms throughout the body. It has many similar features to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Furthermore, many people with autoimmune diseases also suffer from fibromyalgia. So what is the connection between fibromyalgia and autoimmune disease?

But is fibromyalgia an autoimmune disease itself, or does it have another cause? Let’s take a look.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a common condition, affecting between 2% and 4% of adults in the U.S. It is more common in females and tends to appear during middle adulthood. It is a condition that causes widespread pain, as well as many other debilitating symptoms. However, for years, scientists have struggled to pinpoint the reason for these issues.

Although the precise cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown, it appears to be the result of a dysfunction in the central nervous system. It involves low levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. It also involves the stress hormone, cortisol, coupled with raised levels of substance P. This combination means that people with fibromyalgia experience increased sensitivity to pain compared to those without the condition. Even a light touch can become painful, making many everyday activities a challenge. To make matters worse, this symptom is often accompanied by many others.

Fibromyalgia Symptoms

To receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, severe pain must be present in three to six areas of the body. Otherwise, milder pain must be present in seven areas or more. These symptoms must persist for at least three months, with no other possible cause.

Alongside widespread pain, fibromyalgia can cause a whole range of other symptoms:

  • Muscle stiffness or spasms
  • Tenderness to touch
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Cognitive difficulties (known as “fibro fog”)

People with fibromyalgia may also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, or depression.

What Is an Autoimmune Disease?

The term “autoimmune disease” is used to describe a disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues.

Under normal circumstances, the immune system protects us from infections, such as viruses and bacteria. It does this by producing antibodies, which are proteins that help the body to recognize invaders and destroy them before they cause serious harm.

However, with an autoimmune disease, the immune system produces antibodies against the body’s own cells. They are known as autoantibodies. They cause the immune system to react to the body’s cells as if they are a virus or bacteria. This reaction causes inflammation and a whole host of unpleasant symptoms.

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What Classifies as an Autoimmune Disease?

There are many different autoimmune diseases. Their symptoms vary significantly, depending on which part of the body the immune system attacks.

Some common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis)
  • Hyperthyroidism (Grave’s disease)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis

These are just a few examples of autoimmune diseases and there are many more. The key feature that classifies a disease as autoimmune is the involvement of autoantibodies and, in most cases, chronic inflammation.

Is Fibromyalgia an Autoimmune Disease?

For many years, people believed that fibromyalgia was an immune disorder. This is because it shares many common symptoms with certain autoimmune diseases. However, there are some critical differences too.

Similarities Between Fibromyalgia and Autoimmune Diseases

Certain autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and SLE, can cause both pain and fatigue. These are classic fibromyalgia symptoms too. Furthermore, there is often some overlap between these conditions. People with rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, or hypothyroidism often have fibromyalgia as well.

Another similarity is that both fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases both appear to have a genetic component that is triggered by a stressful event. This can include a physical trauma, such as an illness, infection, operation, or childbirth. Otherwise it might be extreme emotional stress due to a relationship breakdown or bereavement.

Finally, both autoimmune diseases and fibromyalgia are far more common in women than in men. They also tend to occur at around the same age.

Differences Between Fibromyalgia and Autoimmune Diseases

Despite the many similarities, there is no evidence that fibromyalgia is the result of autoantibodies attacking healthy cells. It is also not associated with inflammation, whereas many other autoimmune diseases are. Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis cause pain due to damaged, inflamed joints; the cause of fibromyalgia pain is very different. It originates in the central nervous system rather than the immune system, as a result of a neurochemical imbalance.

Therefore, fibromyalgia is not currently classified as an autoimmune disorder, although it does share some similar features. With that said, research into the exact cause of fibromyalgia is still ongoing.

In the future, we may discover that there is an autoimmune element to fibromyalgia. Until then, scientists must continue to work hard to discover the underlying cause of the condition. Only then will they be able to develop effective treatments and relieve the pain of fibromyalgia.