Fibromyalgia versus Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: To identify a threat


Suffering from fatigue? Experiencing restless sleep? It could be Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Think they are the same condition? Think again. While they share many commonalities, they are actually different conditions. This article will uncover their similarities and differences as well as explain how patients can identify and treat these threats to healthy living.

Overviewing the two conditions

According to health information from the Mayo Clinic,

Fibromyalgia (FM) is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that Fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that cannot be explained by any underlying medical condition usually for a minimum of 6 months. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity but does not mitigate with rest.  

Similar symptoms shared

CFS and FM are known to have a number of symptoms in common. Primarily, they include the following:

  • fatigue
  • chronic widespread pain
  • unrefreshing sleep
  • cognitive difficulties
  • dizziness

In fact, many of the risk factor triggers that elicit each condition are common to both. These include stress (physical or psychological), injury, acute illness, fractured sleep, and exertion

Other similarities include underlying features

Primarily, among similar underlying features is a malfunctioning of neurotransmitters (chemicals) in the brain. More recently, “Central Sensitivity Syndrome,” or CSS, is another key feature that involves the central nervous systems becoming highly sensitive to certain triggers. Depending on the condition, a patient could become sensitive to touch, temperature, certain foods, chemicals and an array of other environmental factors.

Subtle differences in symptoms

Symptom presentations are often more a case of degree than complete separation. For instance, the primary symptom in CF is fatigue, while the primary symptom of FM is pain. However, both conditions may involve both fatigue and pain.

CFS is more likely to be connected with flu-like symptoms, including:

  • a sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • frequent low-grade fever

FM involves other pain types not common in CFS. Severe hyperalgesia (amplified pain) and sometimes tactile allodynia (pain from light touch) is profound in FM patients. Additionally, many cases of CFS include one or both of these pain types.

And the diagnosis is

Diagnosis is another similarity between the two conditions. Both are regarded as “diagnosis of exclusion” meaning all other possible causes have been reviewed and discarded. No blood test or scan can tell you whether one has or doesn’t have FM or CFS. Instead, doctors rely heavily on patient history, symptom presentation, and tests to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms.

FM includes a tender-point exam where the doctor looks for certain symptoms accompanied by pain at specific sites around the body. Another diagnostic method involves a set of symptoms along with answers to a questionnaire. Research suggests that both methods are effective at diagnosing FM and differentiating it from similar conditions.

Treating what ails you

With similar symptoms in common, FM and CFS are often treated the same way. For example, doctors frequently prescribe:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs)
  • Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), Opioids
  • Prescription sleep aids

Other kinds of treatments that may be recommended for both of these conditions include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, acupuncture, and deep tissue massages.

Pain relief versus management of fatigue

In FM, the core of treatment tends to focus on pain relief whereas in CFS management flows toward dealing with fatigue. However, it’s often the same drugs and other treatments that help with both of these symptoms.

Interestingly, attributing CFS to a post-viral illness has gained some support in the medical community to the extent that some medical practitioners have prescribed anti-viral medications.

Further research needed to find more differences

Some experts say the differences between these two conditions most probably do not matter much.  The reason is that the treatments are so similar.

As more research regarding FM and CF is conducted, the differences may grow more distinct. Until then, these two conditions will be regarded as more alike than different and a patient will face the same situation: living with a potentially debilitating chronic illness, and searching for treatments that help alleviate the many symptoms.

About the Author:

Krishan Jeyarajasingham MD is an individual who is planning to continue medical studies abroad in Australia. Global health, Human Rights, Education, & Poverty Alleviation are important to him.

Leave A Comment