Multiple sclerosis (MS) and fibromyalgia are two different health conditions that have some crossover in their symptoms and incidence. For example, both are more prevalent in women, and both cause symptoms such as fatigue. But, despite these similarities, they are entirely separate conditions that affect your body in different ways. The treatment options for both are very different, too, making it all the more important to get the right diagnosis first time.
In this blog, we’re going to explain more about MS and fibromyalgia, as well the symptoms, outlook and treatment options for each. We’ll also detail what to do if you or someone close to you is exhibiting symptoms of either condition, and how Dementech Neurosciences can help.
What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS?)
Multiple sclerosis, simply known as MS, is a lifelong disease that affects the immune system. If you have MS, your immune system will attack parts of your brain or spinal cord by mistake, causing damage to the outer layer that protects your nerves, known as the myelin sheath. This causes scars which can impact the nerves below, resulting in messages being delayed or disrupted. When this happens, symptoms become noticeable.
MS affects mostly women and is a leading cause of disability in young people. It’s thought to be caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors.
Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
Everyone experiences MS differently and what one person goes through, another might not. That being said, some of the most common MS symptoms include:
- Feeling fatigued
- Having trouble walking
- Blurred vision
- Bladder control issues
- Experiencing muscle stiffness or spasms
- Coordination and balance problems
- Parts of the body feeling numb or tingling
- Cognitive issues with learning, planning and thinking
Symptoms may come and go depending on the type of MS you have. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek professional medical advice as soon as possible.
Types of MS
There are two main types of MS, and the type you have will dictate how often you experience symptoms and the severity of them.
Relapsing remitting MS
Relapsing remitting MS is the most common type of MS and accounts for between 80-90% of all cases. With this type of MS, you will experience episodes where your symptoms get worse or you develop new ones. These episodes are known as relapses and generally happen without any prior warning. During a relapse, symptoms may intensify over the course of a few days. Relapses can last anywhere from a couple of days to months, with symptoms mostly improving over a similar sort of time frame.
When symptoms ease off between relapses, this is known as remission. In some cases, remission stages can last for years, but other people experience relapses persistently over a number of years.
It’s thought that around two-thirds of people who are diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS will go on to develop secondary progressive MS at some point. With this type of MS, your symptoms will slowly get worse over a number of years, and there doesn’t tend to be any noticeable episodes, but they can occur infrequently in some people.
Primary progressive MS
Around 10-20% of people are diagnosed with primary progressive MS. With this type of MS, you don’t have any remission periods as symptoms continue to get steadily worse over a number of years, but there may be times when your symptoms stabilise.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia, sometimes known as fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a lifelong condition that causes widespread pain all around your body. It’s not entirely clear what causes fibromyalgia, but it’s widely believed to be the result of abnormalities in the levels of specific chemicals in the brain which can alter how the brain and spinal cord process and carry pain messages. It’s thought that if you have a parent with the condition, you’re more likely to develop it yourself.
In most cases, fibromyalgia is brought on by a big life event, such as bereavement, undergoing an operation, giving birth, incurring an injury or experiencing a breakup. It mostly affects women between 30 and 50 years old, and it’s estimated that as many as one in 20 people could suffer from the condition to an extent. That being said, it can be difficult to diagnose fibromyalgia because of its likeness to other conditions, including MS.
Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
The symptoms of fibromyalgia vary from person to person, but most people experience chronic pain across their body, as well as one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feeling fatigued
- Having stiff muscles
- Experiencing memory and concentration issues (known as fibro fog)
- Sleep problems
- Amplified pain sensitivity
- Nerve pain
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Treatment can ease the severity of some of the symptoms, but it’s unlikely to get rid of them completely.
Key Differences Between MS and Fibromyalgia
Whilst some of the symptoms and the demographic for who is most affected have a degree of overlap, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis have some key differences that distinguish between the two conditions. They include:
MS is an autoimmune disease caused by a problem within the immune system that causes damage to the layer covering the nerves. Fibromyalgia is thought to be caused by abnormal levels of chemicals in the brain.
Diagnosing MS is typically done by ruling out other conditions first. For a diagnosis to be made, you need to have had at least two episodes of MS symptoms. If so, a neurologist will observe your eye movements and vision, limb strength, coordination, balance, speech, and your reflexes to see if there is any nerve damage that aligns with MS. Next, an MRI scan is done to observe any damage to the myelin sheath. You may also undergo a lumbar puncture to see if there is evidence of your immune system fighting an infection, and blood tests are also taken to rule out other conditions.
Diagnosing fibromyalgia is generally done by ruling out other conditions, but the tests that are carried out are slightly different. For example, a physical exam is done to rule out things like rheumatoid arthritis, as well as some blood tests, urine tests or x-rays. To get a fibromyalgia diagnosis, you need to have chronic pain in three to six parts of your body or mild pain in seven or more areas. You must have had fibromyalgia symptoms for at least three months, and other conditions must have been ruled out (including chronic fatigue syndrome and MS).
Managing multiple sclerosis symptoms can be done by taking steroids at home or having them injected in hospital, and taking prescription medications/undergoing therapies specific to each symptom, such as taking gabapentin for muscle spasms or undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help with sleep issues. The main treatment for fibromyalgia is painkillers (antidepressants can sometimes be used), as well as undertaking lifestyle changes, such as exercising more.
Some of the treatments are similar, such as CBT, occupational therapy and pain management, but treatment for fibromyalgia tends to be more generalised due to the pain being more widespread and covering larger parts of the body.
Both fibromyalgia and MS have similar symptoms, but there are some differences in how they are felt. Most people with MS will experience periods of remission where their condition stabilises and they don’t suffer major symptoms, but people with fibromyalgia pain tend to experience ongoing issues without remission episodes.
MS and Fibromyalgia Treatment at Dementech Neurosciences
At Dementech Neurosciences, we have an experienced team of medical professionals who can provide a quick and accurate diagnosis and treat MS and fibromyalgia using the latest equipment and technologies. Our team of neurologists and therapists will work with you to determine the best course of action to help you better manage symptoms and live a good quality of life, whilst our patient advisors can offer support and advice to you and your loved ones on how to cope and live with both conditions. To find out more or to book a neurological examination, please contact us.