Managing Arthritis

Fibromyalgia: Arthritis or not?

Woman suffering, holding and massaging her neck

Google “what is fibromyalgia” and you will come up with millions (!) of hits and sometimes contradictory information. In this article, we shed light on fibromyalgia, its symptoms, causes and recommended treatments.

What is fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic, long-term illness that causes body-wide pain. Because the pain can manifest in muscles, joints and soft tissues, it can be confused with arthritis. However, fibromyalgia is considered a pain disorder involving the nervous system that can affect every part of the body. It is a relatively common condition, affecting 2% of Canadians, primarily women.

People who have fibromyalgia often feel a heightened sensitivity when pressure is put on certain spots, generally around the back of the head, neck, shoulders, elbows, knees and hips. Other symptoms may include extreme fatigue, lack of concentration and memory, feelings of depression and anxiety and gastrointestinal problems (such as constipation or diarrhea).

Fibromyalgia is not arthritis

Because of its similarities to the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, many people refer to fibromyalgia as a form of arthritis. However, according to Dr. Siân Bevan, Chief Science Officer at the Arthritis Society, “fibromyalgia is not a "true form" of arthritis because it does not cause tissue inflammation or damage to joints or muscles.” 

Fibromyalgia is not a disease of the joints, nor is it an inflammatory or degenerative condition, and it will not result in permanent damage to muscles, bones or joints. What fibromyalgia does have in common with arthritis is that it can cause pain and fatigue and thus have a significant impact on a person’s daily life.

Causes of fibromyalgia

The causes of fibromyalgia are not clear and may be different for each person. Research suggests an involvement of the nervous system, particularly the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Stress is believed to play a role. In certain cases, the onset of the condition has been pinpointed to a triggering event, such as a severe illness, a traumatic incident or a stressful, emotional experience. 

Diagnosing fibromyalgia 

Fibromyalgia often co-exists with other conditions, including arthritis, making it difficult to diagnose. 
People diagnosed with fibromyalgia will typically have a history of generalized widespread pain with no obvious cause that lasts three months or longer. Your doctor will begin by asking questions about your pain and additional symptoms (such as fatigue and sensitivity to pressure and temperature), perform a physical examination and may request blood tests or X-rays to rule out other health problems. A consultation with a specialist (usually a rheumatologist) who is familiar with fibromyalgia might be necessary to confirm the cause of the pain.

Living with fibromyalgia

While there is no known cure for fibromyalgia, there are ways to alleviate the symptoms. With proper treatment and self-care – medication, exercise, relaxation, stress-reduction measures and other lifestyle changes – it is possible to get better and live a more normal life. 

The Arthritis Society’s Managing Chronic Pain online learning guide offers strategies, resources and tips on how to minimize your pain symptoms and find relief. 

What else is the Arthritis Society doing?

The Arthritis Society is funding a study by Dr. Nathalie Bureau at the Université de Montréal that seeks to better diagnose fibromyalgia and distinguish it from psoriatic arthritis.