Fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis can cause similar symptoms, such as pain and exhaustion. The symptoms may be difficult to distinguish if a person has both conditions.

While fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) share symptoms, they are unrelated. The two conditions have different causes, diagnostic methods, and treatments.

In this article, we highlight differences in symptoms and describe the range of home remedies and treatments.

Black and white close up of a person clutching their lower back with both handsShare on Pinterest
Anastasia Katozova/EyeEm/Getty Images

Fibromyalgia and RA differ in their symptoms and their causes.

Fibromyalgia typically causes pain and tenderness throughout the body, while RA tends to cause pain, inflammation, and tenderness in certain joints. The physical inflammation of joints as a cause of pain is a key difference between fibromyalgia and RA.

The medical community currently does not believe that fibromyalgia causes inflammation. However, limited research indicates that fibromyalgia may induce a type of inflammation that routine blood tests do not detect.

No evidence suggests this inflammation causes joint or muscle damage like RA, and there may be no visible signs.

Learn more about the symptoms of fibromyalgia here.

Causes

While the effects may be similar, these conditions have different causes. Fibromyalgia is a chronic neurological condition, which means that it affects the nervous system.

Fibromyalgia changes the way the brain and nervous system process and interpret pain. People with the condition often feel pain and tenderness throughout their body and amplified pain when they experience everyday injuries.

RA is an autoimmune condition. It causes the immune system to harm the synovial tissues lining the joints. This leads to inflammation and pain.

Over time, RA can cause permanent damage to the bones and connective tissues in the joints.

Learn more about RA swelling and its causes here.

While joint inflammation differentiates these conditions, they both have shared symptoms, including:

  • pain felt in various parts of the body
  • pain mirrored on both sides of the body
  • stiffness that is worse in the morning or after long periods of rest
  • chronic fatigue
  • reduced mobility and range of motion in muscles and joints
  • depression and anxiety

While many symptoms are similar, there are usually a few ways to distinguish between fibromyalgia and RA.

Symptoms specific to fibromyalgia include:

  • pain in the torso, thighs, buttocks, arms, back, and the back of the head
  • tender skin
  • widespread pain that impacts more than one part or half of the body
  • specific spots of intense pain
  • gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and constipation
  • dizziness and headaches
  • problems remembering and thinking clearly
  • painful menstrual cycles
  • restless leg syndrome
  • sensitivity to temperatures, sounds, and noises
  • symptoms that seem random or are difficult to communicate

Symptoms specific to RA include:

  • severe peripheral joint swelling
  • pain and tenderness that only impacts the joints
  • pain and tenderness felt equally on both sides of the body
  • fever
  • anemia

People can have both conditions simultaneously.

In fact, having RA may increase a person’s likelihood of developing fibromyalgia. A 2017 study found that of 117 RA patients, one-third had fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia can be more difficult to diagnose than RA, as doctors can typically only diagnose fibromyalgia by exclusion. A doctor will test for many other conditions that cause widespread pain; if none are present, they may diagnose fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia diagnosis

A doctor will usually diagnose fibromyalgia if:

  • a person feels severe pain in 3-6 different body areas
  • a person feels mild pain in 7 or more body areas
  • symptoms have lasted for at least 3 months without a break
  • there is no other reason for pains

RA diagnosis

If a doctor suspects RA, they will refer the person to a rheumatologist. This is a medical professional specializing in rheumatic conditions. There is no single way to diagnose RA. However, the rheumatologist will likely use:

  • Medical history: Most people with RA have relatives with the condition, as well as chronic symptoms that impact both sides of the body, primarily the hands and feet.
  • Blood tests: Many people with RA have signs of inflammation and certain antibodies. Cyclic citrullinated peptide (CCP) antibody levels can signify RA. Doctors may also test for rheumatoid factor (RF) levels.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, MRI and ultrasound scans can help to determine the severity of joint damage and exclude other diagnoses, such as calcium pyrophosphate crystals.

Many home remedies and natural treatments for fibromyalgia and RA are similar. However, because the conditions have separate causes, medical treatments are different.

Medical treatments

While medications for RA and fibromyalgia both aim to reduce pain, their mechanisms are different.

Fibromyalgia medications

There is no singular medication that can treat or cure fibromyalgia. However, the FDA approves using pain management medications to reduce symptoms. These include:

Learn more about the treatment options for fibromyalgia here.

RA medications

It is important for people to treat RA early. Treatment often involves medications that reduce inflammation and slow the condition’s progression.

Common medications used to treat RA include:

Learn more about the differences between DMARDS and biologic therapies here.

Home remedies

Taking the following steps at home may help to ease the symptoms of both fibromyalgia and RA:

  • Rest during flare-ups: When symptoms are worst, it often helps to rest the affected areas. Some people find relief by elevating inflamed joints or limbs, reducing blood flow to the area.
  • Exercise: Symptoms can cause many people to avoid exercise. However, gentle, low impact exercises that focus on stretching and strengthening muscles and joints can ease symptoms in the long term.
  • Follow an anti-inflammatory diet: Eating fewer foods that cause inflammation can improve symptoms of both conditions. This means limiting the intake of saturated fats, sugars, red meats, and alcohol.
  • Hold and cold therapies: Many find they can ease symptoms by taking long, warm baths and using heating pads and ice packs.
  • Over-the-counter medications: NSAIDs and pain relieving tablets, creams, and gels can lessen the dull pains associated with fibromyalgia and RA.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness: These practices often help to improve chronic pain and inflammation.
  • Establish support systems: People with chronic pain often experience depression and anxiety. A network of family or friends who understand the condition can help to provide support.
  • Stay positive: People with chronic conditions who try to keep a positive attitude are better able to manage their symptoms in the long term.

Alternative therapies

Many believe that natural and alternative therapies can improve symptoms of RA and fibromyalgia. These methods include:

Discover 10 natural remedies for RA here.

Fibromyalgia and RA cause chronic pain that can be difficult to live with. Symptoms can impact a person’s mood and interfere with everyday activities.

Some people with fibromyalgia seem to benefit from prescription medications. People with RA should seek medical treatment as soon as possible to slow the progression of the disease and prevent joint damage.

Severe fibromyalgia and RA can become disabling. Many people report a lower quality of life, especially during flare-ups of either condition.

However, making changes to lifestyle, using over-the-counter medications, and trying alternative therapies can often reduce symptoms, making both conditions more manageable.

Fibromyalgia and RA cause similar symptoms, such as pain, stiffness, fatigue, and decreased mobility. However, RA occurs due to inflammation in joint tissue, while fibromyalgia pain is due to a disorder of the neurological system.

People can often differentiate between the conditions by assessing their symptoms. However, a full medical diagnosis may be necessary in some cases.