This question is a little more complicated than it may seem at first, given the nature of both fibromyalgia and MS, including their symptoms; the people most likely to have fibromyalgia and/or MS; and the challenge of diagnosis of these conditions.
What are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia and Multiple Sclerosis?MS and fibromyalgia share many symptoms. For instance, people with fibromyalgia have been found to be between two and seven times more likely to have one or more of the following conditions/symptoms:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- systemic lupus erythematosus
- rheumatoid arthritis
Sound familiar to anyone out there with MS? Certainly, many of those of us with multiple sclerosis also experience the following symptoms as part of our MS:
- Depression: This is a complicated relationship, but it is estimated that 50% of people with MS will experience depression in their lifetimes, with 14% depressed at any point in time. In the majority of cases, it is suspected that the depression is a symptom originating in the central nervous system, however, some of the disease-modifying therapies are notorious for causing depression as a side effect. Also, many of the criteria for clinical depression overlap with some of the MS symptoms, including fatigue and cognitive problems, so it can be hard to really separate what is true depression in MS and what is attributable to other symptoms and effects of the disease.
- Headache: People with MS are more likely to have migraines or cluster headaches than people in the general population, although this symptom is often overlooked.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Irritable bowel syndrome is a pretty common disorder that is characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. Although not typically happening all at the same time in MS, we are more prone to constipation and diarrhea as symptoms of MS. Additionally, the "MS hug" can cause people to feel pain all throughout their torso and can mimic intestinal pain.
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include: "fatigue for 6 months or more and experiencing other problems such as muscle pain, memory problems, headaches, pain in multiple joints, sleep problems…" As a person with MS, this describes much of my life and my symptoms almost exactly. Fatigue is the most common symptom of MS, and many people (even those with limited mobility) say that it is their most debilitating symptom.
- Pain: Pain is a strange one in the MS world. Unbelievably, until very recently, MS was considered to be a "painless" disease by experts, and it seems that many docs still think that any pain that a person with MS experiences is unrelated. I will tell you that they are wrong. MS can be a very painful disease, with the pain having many different locations, intensities and effects.
As you can see, this overlap in symptoms may confuse a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis, especially in someone already living with one of these conditions, as docs (and people living with the disease themselves) would naturally assume that the symptoms were part of the original diagnosis and be hesitant to investigate further.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia and/or Multiple Sclerosis?
Fibromyalgia is much more common than MS, as it is estimated that one in 50 (or over 6 million) people in the US have fibromyalgia. In contrast, MS affects less than 10% of that number, or an estimated 400,000 people in the US. That said, there are some commonalities in who is affected:
Women: Between 80 and 90% of people with fibromyalgia are female. Women are more likely to have MS, too, but only 2 or 3 times more likely than men.
Young at Diagnosis: Most people with fibromyalgia are diagnosed when they are between 20 and 55 years old. Similarly, most people with MS are diagnosed when they are between 20 and 50 years old, with the "prime time" being between 30 and 45 years of age. (Read more: Who Gets Multiple Sclerosis?)