Anemia and Fibromyalgia: How's Your Iron Level?

What We Know About Low Iron in Us

Spinach is rich in iron and can help prevent or treat anemia.
Spinach is rich in iron and can help prevent or treat anemia. istetiana/Getty Images

For some people with fibromyalgia, nutritional deficiencies are a real and on-going concern. Because 90 percent of fibromyalgia diagnoses are in women and iron deficiency is common in women, iron is a logical nutrient to look at. Low iron in the blood can lead to a type of anemia, which can have serious symptoms.

A couple of studies have examined iron stores in people with fibromyalgia. While we can't claim to have extensive knowledge based just on those, we can start to get a picture of whether iron is a serious problem in us.

The Research

A study published in 2010 (Ortancil) showed a significant difference in iron levels in the blood between healthy people and those with fibromyalgia. Researchers concluded that low iron was associated with a 6.5-fold increase risk of fibromyalgia.

Some of the study participants had iron-deficiency anemia while others were at the low end of what's considered normal.

However, a 2012 study (Mader) concluded that people with this condition do not have low levels of iron in their blood. Researchers said there's no evidence to support iron supplements for fibromyalgia.

While they didn't find a deficiency, they did (as you'd expect) find normal variations in iron levels. Interestingly, the participants who had lower iron levels also had more severe fibromyalgia symptoms.

So, according to this study, we're not more likely to be anemic, but anemia might make us feel significantly worse.

Taking both studies together, it's impossible to say whether we are or aren't more likely to be anemic than anyone else.

The possible connection and more severe symptoms could give us extra incentive to have our doctors keep an eye on our iron levels, though.

Anemia Basics

Some people with fibromyalgia who've been diagnosed with anemia claim that iron supplements did help alleviate their pain. As with any treatment, it may help some but not others.

It's easy to see how anemia would make fibromyalgia worse, at the very least. The symptoms include:

  • Fatigue,
  • Cognitive problems,
  • Cold hands and feet,
  • Headache,
  • Pale skin,
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Chest pain.

Looking at that list, you can see how anemia could be missed in someone with this illness -- there's a big overlap in the symptoms. On top of that, anemia symptoms are remarkably similar to those associated with low thyroid hormone (which is also common in us.)

Anemia is believed to be especially common in women because of our periods. All that blood we shed each month can take a lot of iron with it, and that can lead to a deficiency if we're not getting enough iron in our diets. Pregnancy is also a common cause of anemia and it's common for obstetricians to keep an eye on iron stores.

Anemia is also common in eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, which are more prevalent in women.

Treating Anemia & Low Blood Iron

Your doctor should be able to test you for an iron deficiency and guide you as to what treatment may be best for you. Sometimes anemia is treated with supplements, but dietary changes may also help correct the deficiency.

For more information on how anemia is treated, see Food & Treatments for Iron-Deficiency Anemia, by our Women's Health Expert Tracee Cornforth.

It's interesting to note that restless legs syndrome, a sleep disorder that's closely related to fibromyalgia, is sometimes linked to low blood iron levels. Learn more from Sleep Disorders Expert Brandon Peters, MD: Treating Restless Legs Syndrome with Iron Supplements.


Cleary BS, Gaudiani JL, Mehler PS. Eating disorders. 2010 Mar-Apr;18(2):132-9. Interpreting the complete blood count in anorexia nervosa.

Mader R, et al. Clinical rheumatology. 2012 Apr;31(4):595-9. Serum iron and iron stores in non-anemic patients with fibromyalgia.

Ortancil O, et al. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2010 Mar;64(3):308-12. Association between serum ferritin level and fibromyalgia syndrome.

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