Multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia both involve the nervous system and cause chronic symptoms, such as pain and fatigue. However, there are key differences.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition. It causes the immune system to attack the central nervous system (CNS) and damage the nerves’ protective coating, which is called myelin.

Fibromyalgia is a complex condition that affects many of the body’s functions. The most telltale symptom is widespread pain and tenderness in the muscles and joints. Unlike MS, fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease.

Currently, the medical community does not fully understand what causes fibromyalgia, but it appears to involve changes in the CNS.

In this article, learn about the differences between MS and fibromyalgia and how doctors diagnose and treat these conditions.

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Fibromyalgia and MS share some symptoms, such as muscle weakness and pain. However, there are key differences concerning the types of pain and accompanying issues. We explore these below.

Fibromyalgia pain

Fibromyalgia pain is typically widespread and lasts a long time. The skin may always feel tender, and some areas may be more sensitive than others.

People with fibromyalgia say that the pain ranges from a dull ache to a burning or shooting pain. There may be tender spots in muscles and tendons, from which pain radiates.

For a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, the pain must have lasted for at least 3 months.

Other fibromyalgia symptoms

Below, learn about other symptoms of this condition and their broader effects:

  • Chronic fatigue may cause people to take long breaks between activities or need extra sleep.
  • Restlessness or restless legs syndrome can make it hard to get comfortable and relax and may lead to sleep disturbances, such as insomnia.
  • “Fibro fog” refers to a sense of confusion or difficulty focusing. Some research suggests that it results from the brain trying to tune out pain, which makes thinking more difficult.

MS affects nerves throughout the body. Damaged nerves may fire without cause, leading to pain and other sensations in one or multiple areas.

The pain affects people differently, but it can involve:

  • tingling and numbness
  • stabbing pain in the face or jaw
  • a squeezing pain around the torso
  • a sensation like an electric shock, called Lhermitte’s sign
  • tightening in the muscles of the limbs

The severity can vary, depending on how far MS has progressed. Some people only experience tingling, while others experience widespread, debilitating pain.

Other MS symptoms

Other symptoms of MS include:

Changes in speech

As the immune system damages the nerves, it can take more time for the nerves’ signals to reach the brain. This can make speech slow or difficult.

Vision changes

Nerve damage can also affect the eyes, leading to blurred or double vision. Some people experience extensive or complete vision loss.

Difficulty moving or walking

Nerve damage can lead to muscle weakness in the arms or legs, which can affect the way a person walks. Their gait may become disrupted or unsteady.

Coordination

Damage to the nerves can also inhibit a person’s coordination, causing them to feel off-balance or dizzy.

Bladder and bowel changes

People with MS may need to urinate or have bowel movements more frequently, for example.

Here, find out about the early signs of MS.

Diagnosing either condition can be challenging, and it may involve a process of elimination.

MS diagnosis

To help them diagnose MS, a doctor:

  • asks about the person’s symptoms and medical history
  • does a physical and neurological examination
  • may suggest an MRI scan to check for damage to the brain and spinal cord
  • may do a lumbar puncture to remove some spinal fluid for testing in a laboratory
  • may do some blood tests to rule out other conditions

Fibromyalgia diagnosis

There is no single test for fibromyalgia. A doctor instead asks questions about:

  • specific symptoms of widespread pain
  • presence of tender points
  • fatigue
  • changes in thinking

They may carry out an MRI or blood tests to rule out other conditions.

MS and fibromyalgia are long-term conditions. Symptoms of fibromyalgia can be persistent, but the condition is not life threatening. The symptoms of MS can progress and become debilitating.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society report that MS may reduce a person’s lifespan by 7 years and that severe and rapidly progressing forms can be fatal.

The National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, however, state that a person with MS has the same life expectancy as a person without the disease.

As there is no cure for either condition, treatments involve managing and reducing symptoms to improve the quality of life.

MS treatment

Having a thorough treatment plan can help relieve symptoms, prevent flare-ups, and slow the progression of the condition.

An emerging class of drugs called disease-modifying therapies can help reduce the number of flares and may also slow progression.

Other treatments, such as corticosteroids, can help manage flares and the symptoms that can arise.

Some over-the-counter medications can provide temporary relief from symptoms such as pain. Options include:

  • ibuprofen (Advil)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • aspirin

A doctor may prescribe the following for pain and itching:

  • hydroxyzine (Atarax)
  • phenytoin (Dilantin)
  • amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • nortriptyline (Pamelor, Aventyl)
  • carbamazepine (Tegetrol)

Alternative therapies that may also help include:

  • techniques to relieve stress, such as breathing exercises and meditation
  • low-impact activities, such as swimming, tai chi, and yoga
  • acupuncture
  • reflexology

However, there is not enough evidence to confirm that all of these are useful for people with MS.

Fibromyalgia treatment

The National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association report that the following can help people manage the condition:

  • Medicinal therapy: Some prescription drugs can reduce symptoms such as pain.
  • Aerobic exercise: It may help to have a daily exercise routine. This does not need to be strenuous but should get the heart rate up.
  • Mental health support: Tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy may complement treatment. Also, friends, family members, and various groups can provide crucial support and enhance overall well-being.
  • Education: Doctors should provide information about the condition and various treatment options. Some people find that researching independently helps them find better treatments and more relief.

As there are not many direct medical treatments for the condition, complementary therapies may be a good option. Some include:

Can CBD help with fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia and MS can be challenging to diagnose because their symptoms resemble those of many other conditions, including:

MS and fibromyalgia are different conditions that can cause similar symptoms. There is no cure for either, but there are many ways to manage the symptoms.

Speak with a doctor about any possible symptoms of either health issue. The doctor will help develop a comprehensive treatment strategy.

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