Fibromyalgia vs. Arthritis: How to Tell the Difference

Fibromyalgia vs. Arthritis: How to Tell the Difference

Given the constant motion, bending, twisting, lifting, and propelling, your joints undergo excessive wear-and-tear over the years. Eventually, the inner lining and cartilage break down, allowing your bones to rub against one another painfully. This describes the classic symptoms of osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of more than 100 kinds of arthritis. 

But not all joint pain points to OA. If your joints are stiff and painful, you may have an infection, muscle strain, sprain, bursitis, dislocation, or even a fracture. At the American Rehabilitation Center in Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, and Anamosa, Iowa, Dr. Stanley Mathew, our triple-board-certified physician, diagnoses and treats many types of joint pain using the holistic, interdisciplinary approach of physiatry

Here, he takes a closer look at two common causes of joint pain that have similar symptoms but very different origins: arthritis and fibromyalgia


Arthritis is an umbrella term that describes more than 100 different joint conditions. The disease affects people of all races, sexes, and ages and constitutes the top cause of disability in the United States. 

We mentioned that OA is the most common type of arthritis, but today we’re focusing on rheumatoid arthritis (RA) because it’s often confused with fibromyalgia. Unlike OA, which occurs when the protective cartilage in your joints wears down, rheumatoid arthritis stems from a problem with your immune system, causing it to attack the tissues in your joints. 


Fibromyalgia is a condition that triggers widespread, inexplicable pain. It affects about 4 million Americans, but we don’t know what causes it. Women are two times more likely than men to develop fibromyalgia, and it tends to run in families. There may be a link between fibromyalgia and obesity, viral infection, stress, and/or trauma, but researchers are still investigating these possible connections.

Similarities between RA and fibromyalgia

The reason it’s hard to tell the difference between RA and fibromyalgia is that they share several symptoms, such as:

Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand with both fibromyalgia and RA, as the diseases take a toll on mental health as well. 

Differences between RA and fibromyalgia

If you only experience the symptoms mentioned above, it’s hard to diagnose your condition on those signs alone. However, other symptoms inevitably crop up and give you more clues. 

Unique RA symptoms

A few symptoms that RA doesn’t share with fibromyalgia include:

Unique fibromyalgia symptoms

Fibromyalgia has a long list of unique symptoms that don’t overlap with RA:

Women with fibromyalgia often report painful periods, and most people struggle to explain the source or patterns of their pain. 

Getting an accurate diagnosis

The only way to determine whether you have RA, fibromyalgia, or both is to see Dr. Mathew for an expert diagnosis.

Diagnosing fibromyalgia is typically an exercise in elimination. If you experience widespread pain that can’t be attributed to another condition, you likely have fibromyalgia. Dr. Mathew also checks for certain criteria before diagnosing fibromyalgia: Mild pain must be present in at least seven areas, severe pain must be present in 3-6 different locations, and the symptoms must persist for at least three months.

RA, on the other hand, is diagnosable via blood and imaging tests. 

No cures exist for RA or fibromyalgia, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Dr. Mathew offers multiple treatments for both conditions that help you manage your symptoms, increase mobility, and get your life back. 

In many cases, simple lifestyle changes can improve your symptoms. Talk to Dr. Mathew about nutrition and exercises that address inflammation. Physical therapy and yoga can increase flexibility without further damaging your joints and causing more pain. 

Dr. Mathew uses a multidisciplinary approach that gives you a broad range of options, including chiropractic care, cryotherapy, nerve blocks, electrical stimulation, steroid injections, medications, and more. As a pain specialist, he doesn’t stop until your pain does. 

Whether you have RA, fibromyalgia, or both conditions simultaneously, you can stop the pain with a visit to the American Rehabilitation Center. Call us or book an appointment online

You Might Also Enjoy...

Understanding Disability Ratings

Understanding Disability Ratings

Some workplace injuries are minor and temporary. But others can lead to long-term disablement. Here’s how doctors and government officials rate your disability and determine your benefits.
How Low Blood Sugar Can Trigger Migraine Attacks

How Low Blood Sugar Can Trigger Migraine Attacks

If you have migraine disease, you probably know most of your triggers, but don’t overlook low blood sugar as a powerful migraine instigator. Here’s what you need to know about the link between hypoglycemia and migraine.
How Cryotherapy Works to Treat Your Joint Pain

How Cryotherapy Works to Treat Your Joint Pain

If you’ve ever placed a bag of frozen peas on a twisted ankle, you’ve practiced a form of cryotherapy and have discovered how cold temperatures can ease your pain. Keep reading to discover how doctors use that concept to treat chronic joint pain. 
Understanding Botox® for Non-Cosmetic Uses

Understanding Botox® for Non-Cosmetic Uses

Botox® has become a household word, and most understand its cosmetic uses. But if you don’t know Botox’s medical applications — you don’t know the half of it. Here’s how this powerful treatment relieves a range of health conditions.