Chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis are difficult to manage, especially when there is no cure for the ailment. In most cases, there are two goals in sight for these progressive diseases. First, physicians seek to slow the advancement of the disease and prolong life. Second, they seek to manage symptoms, improving quality of life and independence for the patient.
While not considered a degenerative disease, fibromyalgia is handled much the same way, in terms of managing symptoms for a healthier, fuller life. That’s because there is as yet no cure for this ailment, and it presents in a very similar fashion to multiple sclerosis, with multiple symptoms mimicking the progressive disease. At the same time, more than just the cause behind these ailments sets them apart from each other.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a newly accepted diagnosis still challenged by some in the medical community, though better understood and recognized now than in the past. It is characterized by long term, widespread pain in bones and muscles, as well as tender “trigger” points on the body. The symptoms cannot be measured with any test, and no underlying physical condition can be found to “blame” for the symptoms.
Recently, it’s been discovered that certain factors may contribute to the cause behind fibromyalgia, though the exact translation of “cause and effect” in the body is still uncertain.
Triggers of the condition may include:
- Infection or prior illness, which can lead to the extreme sensitivity to pain or worsen conditions of fibromyalgia
- Genetic disposition, meaning that having a family member who suffers from fibromyalgia makes a person more likely to develop the condition, potentially based on an inherited genetic mutation
- Physical or emotional trauma, perhaps linked with post traumatic stress disorder, based on personal experiences in the past
- Stress, which, when experienced in large quantities over months and years, can cause several physical ailments as well as a hormonal imbalance that could be the culprit behind fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia and MS: Symptoms and similarities
Many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia are exactly the same as those in a patient experiencing a relapse of multiple sclerosis, which can lead to misdiagnosis.
Some of the common symptoms between the two conditions include:
- Extreme fatigue and long periods of sleep without feeling rested
- Pain, especially in the legs and extremities
- Disturbance in sleep based on pain, cramps, spasms, and other issues
- Severe headaches and migraines
- Bladder and bowel control issues
- Cognitive impairment and ability to focus
- Difficulty performing everyday activities
- Depression and anxiety, based on condition, cognitive disruption, or world view of the condition
In both scenarios, women are at much higher risk than men for developing the ailment, and those with family members suffering the disease or condition are at higher risk. Another risk factor common between the two is having an existing, potentially related disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
For both MS and fibromyalgia, physical and occupational therapy can yield positive results, helping patients to function better within their limitations and even overcome some of those limitations. It can also help both kinds of patients adapt their surroundings for better manipulation of their environment in an independent setting.
The key differences between MS and fibromyalgia
One of the basic differences between fibromyalgia and MS is that the former doesn’t show any damage to the nervous system, whereas there is clearly damage in the latter. With MS, the immune system attacks the central nervous system, damaging the protective coating on the nerves and creating problems with the electrical impulse signaling. However, with fibromyalgia, there is no evident damage that causes the nerves to process pain differently than in the average individual.
Other differences are also notable:
- Fibromyalgia is not degenerative like MS and does not typically cause permanent disability.
- While both diagnoses require ruling out all other possible causes, MS shows traces of certain issues, such as increased antibodies in the spinal fluid and lesions on the brain, whereas fibromyalgia has no physical evidence.
- While some symptoms are similar, those with fibromyalgia don’t usually experience slurred speech, difficulty walking, or vision issues based on the condition. In contrast, those with multiple sclerosis may experience any of these, as well as tingling and burning of the skin, numbness, and coordination issues.
- While both conditions are more prevalent in women, females make up about seventy percent of MS patients, whereas they makeup about ninety percent of fibromyalgia patients.
- Fibromyalgia is often treated mainly with changes to lifestyle, as well as with non-narcotic pain relievers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs (such as gabapentin). For multiple sclerosis, other treatments are required, including anti-inflammatories, immunosuppressants, and even chemotherapy, with pain relievers and muscle relaxers being secondary.
While it may seem, on the surface, that fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis are incredibly similar, the underlying sources of the two are not. Determining that a patient suffers from MS as early as possible is a crucial factor in overall prognosis and the ability to keep the disease from progressing as quickly. And determining if someone suffers from fibromyalgia can vastly improve quality of life, even resulting in getting the patient treatment for chemical imbalances and depression or anxiety, as well as assuring that the limitations caused by the pain don’t result in eventual disabilities.