Is Fibromyalgia an Autoimmune Disease?

Fibromyalgia Is Not an Autoimmune Disease

Discussing symptoms with a doctor.
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Fibromyalgia is not classified as an autoimmune disease. Since there is no known cause for fibromyalgia, future clinical studies may uncover autoimmunity plays a part. 

Because fibromyalgia was once believed to be an arthritis-related condition, and rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, the erroneous assumption was that fibromyalgia fits into this category.

Fibromyalgia affects about 5 million adults in the United States.

Autoimmune diseases can, and frequently do, cooccur with fibromyalgia. Additionally, some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, have similar symptoms.

Why Isn't Fibromyalgia an Autoimmune Disease?

In autoimmune disorders, the immune system attacks a particular tissue or structure in the body. It typically causes damage and inflammation at that site, and these are traits not observed in fibromyalgia. 

In fibromyalgia, irregularities in hormones, neurotransmitters (messengers in the brain) and enzymes (substances necessary for chemical reactions) are widely believed to be responsible for symptoms. Some researchers, however, suspect the immune system may be somewhat irregular in people with fibromyalgia.

Causes of Fibromyalgia

No particular trigger has been shown to spur the onset of fibromyalgia. Clinicians believe there are a variety of causes, including:

  • emotional trauma
  • viral infections
  • physical injuries

    Experts hypothesize that fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition, not a disease and that an abnormal response to stress, such as the ones listed above, may initially trigger it. Whatever the cause, the result is the areas responsible for pain in your brain begin to react abnormally.

    Abnormal Levels of Brain Chemicals and Hormones in Fibromyalgia Patients

    Fibromyalgia patients typically exhibit brain chemical and hormonal abnormalities, but no singular pattern has emerged among patients.

    Although these imbalances are associated with fibromyalgia, there is no clinically conclusive evidence they cause this disorder.

    Brain chemical and hormonal imbalances common in fibromyalgia include: 

    • reduced opioid receptor activity in the parts of your brain that regulate mood and the emotional aspect of pain
    • lower serotonin levels
    • lower levels of the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, which lead to inadequate responses to physical and psychological stresses
    • low levels of IFG-1, which promotes bone and muscle growth
    • up to three times the normal level of substance P, which is associated with increased pain perception

    Other Common Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

    As you now know, there is no singular pattern of symptoms for fibromyalgia. However, a group of symptoms is common in many patients and include:

    • Tender points of pain in specific areas of the body that affect muscles, but not joints. Patients feel pain in at least 11 of 18 associated tender points to receive a diagnosis, according to information from the University of Maryland Medical Center.
    • Aching, radiating and exhausting pain may also be present, accompanied by widespread stiffness.
    • Disturbed sleep and fatigue are practically universal among fibromyalgia patients. 
    • Restless leg syndrome is also typical.

    Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus Symptoms Are Similar

    Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are autoimmune diseases that may present symptoms similar to fibromyalgia. Additionally, fibromyalgia may also co-occur with both of these diseases, meaning you can have both at the same time. A correct diagnosis is important to an effective treatment plan.

    Other Fibromyalgia FAQs

    Sources:

    University of Maryland Medical Center: Fibromyalgia (2012)

    Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: Understanding Fibromyalgia and Its Related Disorders (2008)

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