by Kimberly Holland and Ana Gotter
Multiple sclerosis (MS) and fibromyalgia are very different conditions. However, they sometimes share similar symptoms and signs. Both conditions require a variety of medical tests for a diagnosis. Before you begin any tests, you may be able to distinguish your symptoms and decide if they are signs of one of these conditions. Your doctor can help, too.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is characterized by musculoskeletal pain that affects the entire body. In addition to chronic pain, fibromyalgia causes increased drowsiness and fatigue, as well as mood and memory issues.
Medical researchers and doctors do not fully understand what causes fibromyalgia. However, it’s believed the condition amplifies the natural pain sensations. In other words, people with fibromyalgia appear to experience normal pain in an overly painful way.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition that destroys the protective coating (myelin) that surrounds the nerves. MS causes the body to mistake the healthy myelin that surrounds the nerves as foreign. MS destroys the myelin and eventually causes the nerves to no longer be able to function as they should. Over time, MS can completely destroy the myelin. It may then begin attacking and destroying the nerves themselves.
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One symptom, more than any other, may be able to help you decide if you are experiencing the signs of either MS or fibromyalgia.
Pain associated with fibromyalgia is chronic and widespread. It is described as a dull, aching pain. To be classified as fibromyalgia, a person must experience the chronic pain for at least three months. Also, the pain must occur on both sides of the body, above and below the waist.
Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- Memory issues: “Fibro fog” is a term applied to the confusion, difficulty focusing and concentrating, and changes in memory that people with fibromyalgia often experience.
- Mood changes: Depression is not uncommon in people with fibromyalgia. Also, people with fibromyalgia sometimes experience mood swings.
- Chronic fatigue: Fibromyalgia causes a great deal of fatigue. People with fibromyalgia are prone to long periods of sleep and rest. However, many people with fibromyalgia also have sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
MS destroys the protective coating around your nerves and eventually the nerves themselves. Once damaged, the nerves may not be able to feel or experience sensations as well as healthy nerves. The symptoms associated with MS vary depending on the amount of nerve damage and which nerves are affected. It is common for people who have MS to have significant chronic pain. You will eventually experience numbness and weakness in affected areas. Tingling and mild pain can occur, too.
Other symptoms of MS include:
- Difficulty walking: You may develop an unsteady gait and have trouble walking. Coordination and balance will also be challenged.
- Slurred speech: As the myelin is worn away, communication from the brain may slow down. This can make speech seem more difficult, and you may have a harder time speaking clearly.
- Vision problems: Double vision and complete or total vision loss can occur. Eye pain is common, too.
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Diagnosing Fibromyalgia and MS
Diagnosing either condition can be difficult for doctors. In many cases, a doctor will come to this condition after they have ruled out other possible causes for your symptoms.
Fibromyalgia is diagnosed if your doctor can’t find any other explanation for your whole-body pain. The pain will also need to have been occurring for at least three months. There is no specific test that can be used to diagnose fibromyalgia. Instead, a doctor will make a diagnosis off a group of symptoms, one of which is widespread pain. Doctors often also use “tender points” to diagnosis fibromyalgia. What this means is that people with fibromyalgia feel additional pain when a doctor applies firm pressure to these sensitive points on the body.
MS is not diagnosed with a single test or procedure. If other conditions are ruled out, your doctor may conduct a spinal tap. During this procedure, your doctor will remove a small sample of spinal fluid and test it for antibodies that are associated with MS. Additionally, MRI can detect lesions on your brain and spinal cord.
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Once a diagnosis has been made for either fibromyalgia or MS, your doctor will suggest different treatments to help treat symptoms and improve your quality of life. Just as the two conditions are very different, treatment options for the two conditions will be different.
There are a variety of different types of treatment options, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications, and alternative treatments.
Over-the-counter solutions include:
Prescription medications include:
- Lyrica and other antiseizure medications
Alternative treatments include:
- massage therapy
- tai chi
Lifestyle changes include:
- getting enough sleep
- exercising regularly
- limiting caffeine intake
- reducing stress
As with fibromyalgia, there are a variety of treatments available for those with MS that can help with symptom management and improve a person’s quality of life. These include prescription medications, alternative remedies, and lifestyle changes.
Over-the-counter solutions, which are used for pain relief, include:
Prescription medications and interventions include:
- injectable medications such as Avonex or Extavia
- oral medications such as Aubagio and Tecfidera
- infused medications such as Lemtrada
- high doses of solu-medrol (a steroid) for relapse management
- physical therapy for rehabilitation
- speech-language pathology
Alternative treatments include:
- stress management
- cognitive behavioral therapy
Lifestyle changes include:
- maintaining a high-fiber, low-fat diet
- exercising regularly, including stretching
No matter what method of treatment you’re currently on, discuss any new changes in treatment with your doctor before you start them, even if they’re considered “natural” or “safe,” as they could interfere with treatments or medications you’re currently on.
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Both MS and fibromyalgia are currently chronic, incurable conditions. Though treatments can alleviate symptoms and improve the overall quality of life, there are no cures available for either condition, and both tend to advance with time.
Fibromyalgia is not fatal. While there is no complete cure for fibromyalgia, there have been recent developments in how to treat it. Because medications are limited, lifestyle and alternative remedies are an important part of treatment management. In general, people with fibromyalgia who adapt to necessary lifestyle changes with the help of medications can experience significant improvement in their symptoms.
Most people with MS will have an equivalent or almost equivalent life expectancy to that of the average person without MS. However, this does not include rare cases of severe MS. Many people with MS may develop cancer or heart disease, which decreases life expectancy.
Symptoms in those with MS can be unpredictable, though most will see some amount of disease progression as time goes on. People with MS who experience more time between symptom attacks and relapses tend to do better and experience less severe symptoms.
Though they sometimes share similar symptoms, MS and fibromyalgia are two very different conditions. Understanding the differences can help you and your doctor to start testing for the right condition earlier.
If you have unexplained symptoms that resemble one or both of these conditions, make an appointment with your doctor. They can begin investigating your symptoms to diagnose the cause and get you the treatment you need.
Both of these conditions are likely to be life-changing, but as is true with many other conditions, getting treatment as soon as possible can help your increase comfort and quality of life, as well to potentially slow down the onset or advancement of symptoms.