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  • Dr. Chris Phillips

What is the Difference Between Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid Arthritis?


Distinguishing between fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult, especially since symptoms are very similar. While both conditions produce pain and exhaustion, it is important to understand their differences in order to effectively target and treat the problem.


With fibromyalgia, many report feeling widespread pain and sensitivity that can come and go or even move about the body. Comparatively, those with rheumatoid arthritis typically feel pain, swelling, and tenderness in certain joints.

The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) states:

Fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune or inflammation based illness, but research suggests the nervous system is involved.”

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. It is caused when the immune system (the body’s defense system) is not working properly.”

An article in Medical News Today explains:

“Fibromyalgia changes the way the brain and nervous system process and interpret pain. People with the condition tend to feel amplified pain when they experience everyday injuries, such as strains. RA is an autoimmune condition. It causes the immune system to harm the synovial tissues, which line the joints. This leads to inflammation and pain.”


Studies have shown that it's the triggering factors that often lead to the difference between the two diseases.

The ACR website further describes how fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis differ:

“There is most often some triggering factor that sets off fibromyalgia. It may be spine problems, arthritis, injury, or other types of physical stress. Emotional stress also may trigger this illness. The result is a change in the way the body ‘talks’ with the spinal cord and brain. Levels of brain chemicals and proteins may change. More recently, Fibromyalgia has been described as Central Pain Amplification disorder, meaning the volume of pain sensation in the brain is turned up too high.”

“RA is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system is supposed to attack foreigners in your body, like bacteria and viruses, by creating inflammation. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly sends inflammation to your own healthy tissue. The immune system creates a lot of inflammation that is sent to your joints causing joint pain and swelling. If the inflammation remains present for a long period of time, it can cause damage to the joint. This damage typically cannot be reversed once it occurs.”


Essentially, patients with RA will have evidence of swelling and inflammation in the joints, often of the hands and/or feet, which will typically be absent in patients with fibromyalgia, who may also have joint pain, but more so also describe widespread muscle AND joint pain. It is worth noting that some patients with RA or other inflammatory diseases, may also develop fibromyalgia!


If you have questions about joint pain, we can help! We understand that dealing with any autoimmune or rheumatic disease is life-changing and certainly impacts your ability to function from day to day. The journey can be long and difficult, but our team at Paducah Rheumatology works hard to provide the best care and support possible.


We strive to educate and empower our patients to help them overcome their challenges and live fulfilling lives.


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