Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Fibromyalgia: What Are the Differences?

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of autoimmune disorder where your immune system attacks joint tissues, causing joint pain and stiffness.

Fibromyalgia, on the other hand, is a neurological (affecting the nervous system) condition that causes fatigue and muscle pain, but is not considered a type of arthritis.

Although rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia are both chronic pain conditions with overlapping symptoms, the causes of these conditions are not the same.

This article will explain more about the differences between rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

What Are the Symptoms?

RA and fibromyalgia symptoms can overlap and have many similarities. However, each condition has unique symptoms that the other does not. 

Both conditions may cause: 

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems

Rheumatoid arthritis may also cause:

  • Inflammation 
  • Joint swelling
  • Low-grade fever
  • Appetite loss

Fibromyalgia may also cause:

  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Sensitivity to temperature changes 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome 

Causes of RA and Fibromyalgia

It is important to note that rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia have different causes. RA is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the joints, while fibromyalgia stems from an abnormal pain response from the nervous system. Researchers are still trying to determine the exact cause of each condition. 

The possible causes of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Specific genes
  • Environmental factors 
  • Sex hormones

The possible causes of fibromyalgia include:

  • Illnesses
  • Traumatic events
  • Repeat injuries 

How RA and Fibromyalgia Are Diagnosed

The diagnosis process begins the same way for rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Your healthcare provider will: 

  • Collect your medical history
  • Discuss your symptoms 
  • Do a physical exam

The diagnosis process for rheumatoid arthritis may also include the following laboratory tests:

Imaging tests for rheumatoid arthritis include:

Diagnosing fibromyalgia doesn’t involve these tests.

Unfortunately, there is no official laboratory or imaging test that can diagnose fibromyalgia. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion. Your healthcare provider will have to rule out other health conditions to confirm that they are not causing your symptoms.

Sometimes fibromyalgia may be misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis because of the similar symptoms. 

Treatments Vary Depending on the Condition

Some of the treatment options for fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis are similar, but others are not. You may be given the following treatment options for either condition: 

Additional treatment options for rheumatoid arthritis include:

Additional treatment options for fibromyalgia include:

Preventing RA and Fibromyalgia

Although there are steps you can take to improve your health overall, researchers have not found specific prevention steps to stop rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia from ever developing. 

In general, to stay healthy you may want to:

  • Limit alcohol
  • Stop smoking or using any type of tobacco products
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid injuries when possible 

Summary 

Rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia are two painful health conditions with similar but not identical symptoms. This can make diagnosis difficult for healthcare providers. You have treatment options that can help you manage these conditions and reduce pain. 

A Word From Verywell

Rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose and treat. It is important to talk to your doctor about your concerns and to stay actively involved in your health. Make sure you notify your healthcare provider about any changes in symptoms, new symptoms, or side effects from treatments. 

There are support groups for both rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia that you may want to explore. Some groups meet online, while others meet in person. You can learn more about living with RA and fibromyalgia while sharing your own experiences. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the link between fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis?

    The main link between fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis is that they have similar symptoms and cause pain. Their similarities can make diagnosis difficult, so it is possible for fibromyalgia to be misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis.

    It is also possible that problems with the nervous system may contribute to pain in both rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

  • Is rheumatoid arthritis a risk factor for fibromyalgia?

    It is possible to have both rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is also more common among people who have RA. About 20% have both rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

    Although people with RA are more likely to have fibromyalgia, the reverse does not appear to be true. If you have fibromyalgia, it is not necessarily a risk factor for RA.

  • What helps with joint pain and fatigue?

    You need an individual treatment plan to deal with joint pain and fatigue. This may include:

    • Medications
    • Exercise
    • Physical therapy
    • Lifestyle changes
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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis.

  2. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Fibromyalgia.

  3. Kim H, Cui J, Frits M, et al. Fibromyalgia and the prediction of two-year changes in functional status in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2017;69(12):1871-1877. doi:10.1002/acr.23216