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7 Conditions You Might Be Mistaking for Fibromyalgia

Because there’s no test for this chronic pain disorder, your doctor may want to rule out these similar conditions.

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What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia presents a unique medical conundrum: Its symptoms are so common, it’s both underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed for similar problems. “Fibromyalgia is a disorder of the central nervous system that causes widespread pain,” says Seth Lederman, MD, a physician, scientist and co-founder and CEO of Tonix, a pharmaceuticals company. “Most often people with this long-term illness are fatigued, have sleep problems, and are plagued with tenderness throughout the body, especially in the neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, and legs.” While the cause of fibromyalgia is unclear, doctors believe the condition may run in families. It’s also roughly seven times more common in women than men. Fibromyalgia goes undiagnosed in as many as three out of four sufferers. Because there are no blood tests or scans to easily diagnose it, many physicians have trouble detecting the disorder. Here are some common conditions your doctor may consider before diagnosing you with FM. It’s more prevalent than you think, too—here’s how common the condition is.

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Arthritis

Although both conditions are indicative of widespread pain and constant fatigue, the two have their differences. “Many people tend to think that fibromyalgia is an actual form of arthritis, but that is not the case,” says Michael H. Lowenstein, PhD, medical director at the Waismann Method Opioid Treatment Center in southern California. “While it is characterized by pain, FM does not cause tissue inflammation nor does it physically damage the body’s muscles and joints like arthritis is known to do.” In the early stages of arthritis, this physical damage has not taken its course yet, so a patient only experiences the painful sensations, muscle stiffness, and exhaustion that are more in line with FM. Only later when arthritic symptoms have further developed can a physician rule out fibromyalgia by taking an X-ray. Here are doctor-recommended home remedies for arthritis.

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Multiple sclerosis

While multiple sclerosis (MS) and fibromyalgia are two very different diseases, they do share a great deal of similarities, particularly the chronic pain that affects most of the entire body. “MS is a neurological condition that attacks and destroys the myelin, or protective coating, surrounding our body’s nerves,” says Anca D. Askanase, MD, MPH, rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “Once the damage is done to the outer layer of the nerves MS attacks the nerves themselves, causing the individual to lose sensation throughout their body.” While the symptoms are relative to the amount of damage MS has presently done to the nerves, it is common for sufferers to experience chronic pain throughout. “Symptoms of MS that may be different to FM include difficulty walking, blurred eyesight, and slurred speech,” says Dr. Lederman. Unfortunately both conditions are equally difficult for doctors to diagnose. “Most physicians can only come to a diagnosis of FM or MS after they’ve ruled out other possible causes,” says Nathan Wei, MD, board certified rheumatologist. These are silent signs of multiple sclerosis to know.

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Lupus

This is another condition characterized by a great deal of fatigue, muscle pain and soreness that’s often made worse by difficulty sleeping. “Lupus is an autoimmune disease affecting at least 1.5 million Americans that can cause damage to pretty much any area of the body, from the epidermis to the joints and even the body’s inner organs,” says Dr. Lederman. “Lupus patients may experience a similar tiredness and soreness to those suffering from FM, but some of the first signs of lupus are clearly different, including a rash across the face that worsens in the sun, difficulty breathing, kidney failure, stroke or even a heart attack.” To help detect the difference, doctors will likely conduct a blood test that measures the patient’s level of antinuclear antibodies. Most of the time this test will show up positive if the patient has lupus, and is followed up by other special tests to come to a more definite diagnosis. These are symptoms of lupus you can familiarize yourself with.

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Chronic fatigue syndrome

Because there is no single lab test for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and the fact that its symptoms—fatigue, memory loss, muscle and joint pain, trouble sleeping, etc.—are similar to many other conditions including FM, doctors have a difficult time diagnosing it. In fact, of the one to four million Americans who have CFS, fewer than 20 percent have been diagnosed, reports the CDC. “For your doctor to come to a CFS diagnosis, a patient must be suffering from constant fatigue for at least six months, as well as experience other key symptoms,” says Dr. Wei. Check out these natural ways to treat fibromyalgia.

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Depression

Anyone who’s ever battled even a temporary bout of this mentally exhausting and deteriorating disorder knows it’s serious. But for those suffering from depression on a persistent basis, they may wonder if there may be something more to their diagnosis. “One of fibromyalgia’s key symptoms is depression, so it’s not uncommon for a person to think they may have FM after months or years of experiencing the debilitating effects of depression,” says Dr. Lowenstein. “So it’s even more confusing for patients to know that the two disorders can occur congruently.” In fact, about 20 percent of patients suffering from FM also suffer from an anxiety disorder or depression, reports the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. If you know you’re suffering from depression, but are not sure FM could also be at play, talk to your doctor about monitoring your symptoms. Use these tips to overcome depression naturally.

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Hypothyroidism

This is a condition caused by an abnormally low amount of activity in the thyroid, the gland in your neck responsible for controlling your body’s metabolism. Due to an underproduction of hormones, a person experiences low energy, unexplained weight gain, greater sensitivity to cold, slow heart rate, and depression, among other symptoms. “Many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism coincide with those of FM, so it can be difficult to differentiate the two just by analyzing symptoms,” says Dr. Wei. Your doctor can do a blood test to see if your thyroid hormone levels are healthy.  Here are other subtle symptoms you’ve got a thyroid problem.

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Polymyalgia rheumatica

In addition to the fact that the two conditions both have “myalgia” in their name, they’re also accompanied by similar symptoms. Polymalgia rheumatica, commonly referred to as PMR, is characterized by widespread aching and stiffness, and just like fibromyalgia, it is not often indicative of physical symptoms that could show up on an X-ray. “In addition to chronic pain, PMR is known to cause trouble sleeping and achy joints,” says Dr. Lederman. “One key differentiator from FM is that it is most common in adults over the age of 50—most often affecting those in their 70s and 80s.” If you are older than 50 and are experiencing these symptoms mentioned, ask your doctor to monitor you for PMR. “While it’s hard to diagnose PMR, your doctor can test your blood for high inflammation, which is usually a sign of the condition,” says Dr. Lederman. These are the 8 fibromyalgia symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest