A doctor is comforting his patient
Fibromyalgia vs. MS, two very different conditions that share similar symptoms but only one shows up in the brain while the other doesn't.

Fibromyalgia vs. MS – What Is the Difference?

It is very common for people to mistake fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis as the same condition – the symptoms are almost alike, and it's a condition that isn't easy to diagnosis – however, the two are entirely different.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a condition which causes a number of different symptoms throughout the body. The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Widespread pain
  • Stiff muscles
  • Sleep problems
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Loss of coordination, clumsiness or dizziness
  • Bowel or bladder problems

What Causes Fibromyalgia?

It is still unclear exactly what causes fibromyalgia although it is often triggered by a physically or emotionally stressful experience such as an infection, operation, childbirth or bereavement. It is more common in women than in men, and there is also thought to be a genetic factor.

People with fibromyalgia have reduced levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood, sleep, and digestion. They also have increased levels of a protein known as substance P.

This is present in the nervous system and plays a role in transmitting pain signals to the brain. This imbalance makes people with fibromyalgia more sensitive to pain, even with a gentle touch.

This pain, combined with the other symptoms of fibromyalgia can make normal, daily tasks exhausting. Coupled with the fact that fibromyalgia is still so poorly understood, this can lead to other problems such as frustration, anxiety, and depression.

There is currently no cure for fibromyalgia and treatment is limited to managing symptoms such as pain. Many fibromyalgia patients find CBT, relaxation techniques and gentle exercise also help.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder. In autoimmune disorders, the immune system cannot recognize the body’s own tissues and behaves as if they were a potential threat. The immune system attacks these tissues, trying to remove them and causing symptoms in the process.

What Are the Symptoms of MS?

In MS, the immune system attacks the central nervous system. It damages the myelin sheath, which surrounds some nerve cells and helps them to transmit their signals. This leads to scars which are known as lesions or plaques and can eventually affect the nerve fibers themselves. This causes a wide variety of symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • Visual disturbances including double vision, loss of vision and color blindness
  • Numbness, tingling, weakness or tremors
  • Pain and stiffness
  • Reduced mobility and coordination
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Impaired short-term memory
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Depression and anxiety

The symptoms of MS vary greatly from person to person depending on which part of the nervous system is being affected. The symptoms can also change over time. MS can either follow a pattern of relapse and remission (in which symptom-free periods alternate with flare-ups), or get progressively worse over time.

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What Causes MS?

Like fibromyalgia, it is unclear exactly what causes MS. It is thought that there may be both genetic and environmental factors. MS is more common in women than in men and is also more common in countries which are further away from the equator.

Although MS is not fatal, it does have a serious impact on the sufferer’s quality of life. People with MS may need extra help to carry out daily activities, especially as the disease progresses.

There is no known cure for MS, and treatment is focussed on reducing symptoms and keeping relapses at bay. As well as medication, therapies such as CBT, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy may all help.

The Difference between Fibromyalgia and Multiple Sclerosis

The symptoms of fibromyalgia and MS may overlap and diagnosis can be difficult. Both conditions affect the central nervous system and can have a wide variety of different symptoms including pain, fatigue and cognitive difficulties.

The only sure-fire way to tell the difference between fibromyalgia and MS is with proper, diagnostic tests.

There is currently no specific test for fibromyalgia. It is normally diagnosed based on the patient’s symptoms and medical history, the presence of certain “tender points” on the body, and ruling out any other cause.

In order to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, there must be pain in multiple areas of the body and symptoms must have been present for longer than three months.

Two systems are used to measure this, the widespread pain score (WPI) and symptom severity scale (SS). These assess the degree to which your symptoms are affecting your day to day life, and can help your physician to make a definitive diagnosis.

MS, on the other hand, can be tested for in a number of different ways. As well as taking a detailed medical history, your neurologist may carry out a physical exam to check your strength, balance, coordination and reflexes.

They may also perform what is known as an evoked potential test. This involves attaching electrodes to your scalp to see how quickly your brain responds to certain stimuli such as sound and touch.

A diagnosis of MS can also be confirmed or ruled out by MRI scans or a lumbar puncture. A lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, checks for the presence of certain antibodies in the spinal fluid. These will be present in MS, but not other conditions such as fibromyalgia.

An MRI scan can show the lesions in areas of the brain or spinal cord that have been damaged.

Could My Fibromyalgia be Multiple Sclerosis?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between fibromyalgia and MS, as many of the symptoms are very similar. The only way to know for sure whether you have a condition such as fibromyalgia or MS is to ask your physician to carry out tests.

Getting a definitive diagnosis can take a while, and this may be a worrying time. However, it is important that you find out exactly what is causing your symptoms so that you can get the help and support you need.

Although both fibromyalgia and MS are life-long conditions, the symptoms can be controlled. However, this does rely on getting a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment as early as possible. So if you think you may be suffering from either of these, make an appointment to discuss your symptoms as soon as possible.