Written by Robin Madell
Medically Reviewed on February 6, 2014 by George Krucik, MD, MBA
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Not the Same
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia are two different conditions with similar symptoms that are often confused.
The Arthritis Foundation (AF) considers fibromyalgia to be an “arthritis-related condition.” But there are some distinct differences between the symptoms of fibromyalgia and RA.
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The Inflammation Difference
One of the biggest differences between forms of arthritis and fibromyalgia is inflammation. In RA, joint inflammation is one of the key symptoms.
There can be pain in the joints and muscles in fibromyalgia, but may not be caused by inflammation. Therefore, fibromyalgia does not damage your joints the way that arthritis can. It also doesn’t seem to damage your muscles or other soft tissues.
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Is It Fibromyalgia?
If joint inflammation isn’t a sign of fibromyalgia, then what is? Two symptoms commonly affect people with the condition:
Muscle and tissue pain. If you have unexplained pain throughout your body, you may have fibromyalgia. This rheumatic condition can impair your muscles and joints, causing chronic pain.
Sleep problems. Many people with fibromyalgia have trouble sleeping. They may also get tired more quickly than other people.
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Paths of Progression
Another big difference between RA and fibromyalgia is the way each disease progresses. Fibromyalgia is episodic but not progressive, which means its symptoms don’t grow more serious over time.
Arthritic conditions like RA have a slow progression of symptoms. Symptoms may arise as “flares” that worsen and then improve. Without treatment, RA symptoms often gradually become more serious.
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If your joint or muscle pain isn’t chronic but instead comes and goes, you may have RA. Features of this type of arthritis include:
joint pain and stiffness that’s often more severe in the morning
red, swollen joints, often in your hands or feet
a sudden increase in symptoms that intensify for a period of days to months before temporarily subsiding
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Other Signs of RA
People with RA often notice that their joint pain appears on both sides of their body. In other words, if you have a painful joint in one part of your body (such as your right wrist), you also may have pain in the corresponding body part (for example, your left wrist).
Unlike with fibromyalgia, an abnormal immune system response leads to the inflammation seen in RA.
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Getting to the Bottom of It
There are clear signs and symptoms that can help your doctor diagnose. However, fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose.
There isn’t one blood test or X-ray that your doctor can give to determine whether you have fibromyalgia.
One of the best ways for your doctor to help diagnose fibromyalgia is to rule out more common conditions, like RA.
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There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but there are treatment options that can make a difference in your quality of life, including lifestyle changes and medication.
An RA diagnosis requires prompt treatment. Without timely treatment, initial signs of RA can lead to long-term joint damage. Serious cases of RA can even cause damage to major organs, including your heart.