Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Arthritis

What's in a name? When it involves pain, many different names are used. Arthritis is a term that people have known for centuries. The symptoms are familiar-joint pain, redness, and swelling. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia are relatively new terms that can be confused with one another as well as arthritis. Read on to get the right information.

What Is the Difference Between CFS, Fibromyalgia, and Arthritis?

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, and arthritis are similar in that they all involve pain. But they are actually quite distinct with respect to the specific symptoms and type of pain.

Arthritis is an inflammatory disease that causes joint pain, redness, and swelling. Arthritis is progressive, meaning it worsens with time. Arthritis affects women slightly more than men. Unlike CFS and fibromyalgia, arthritis can be diagnosed by a physical exam of your joints and difficulty moving your joints.

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome characterized mainly by widespread pain that usually does not affect your joints. Fibromyalgia is grouped with arthritis as a rheumatic disease, but it does not cause any known tissue damage. People with fibromyalgia have multiple areas of their body that are painful to touch-called tender points-thought to be due to a problem with how their body processes pain signals. Depending on their treatment, approximately a third of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia experience improvement with time.

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complex disorder involving disabling fatigue that does not improve with rest. You can also suffer from all over as well as joint pain, but your symptoms may seem more like the body aches you get with a cold or flu. CFS can last for years.

CFS and fibromyalgia, which predominantly affect women in their 40s and 50s, share many of the same symptoms including:

Symptoms unique to CFS can include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, including sore throat, tender lymph nodes, chills or night sweats, weak and achy muscles

  • Feeling exhausted and ill after exercise or physical exertion

  • Vision problems

  • Sensitivity to certain food, odors, chemicals, medications, and noise

  • Difficulty sitting up for an extended period of time

  • Dizziness and balance problems

  • Fainting

Is It CFS or Fibromyalgia?

CFS and fibromyalgia are difficult to diagnose because there are no tests to identify either condition. However, your doctor can diagnose these conditions based on your symptoms and after ruling out other disorders.

Your doctor may diagnose you with CFS if you have unexplained and disabling fatigue lasting longer than six months and at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Sore throat or sore lymph nodes

  • Muscle or joint pain without swelling

  • Headaches

  • Constant need for sleep

  • Feeling sick after physical activity

Fibromyalgia is diagnosed based on the location and frequency of tender points in the body and other factors. After ruling out other conditions, your doctor will consider whether your symptoms meet the criteria for fibromyalgia created by the American College of Rheumatology, which include having:

  • Widespread pain in all four quadrants of your body (the left and right side; above and below the waist) lasting more than three months

  • Tenderness or pain in at least 11 of 18 specific tender points when pressure is applied

How Are CFS and Fibromyalgia Treated?

Treatment for both CFS and fibromyalgia involves taking medication and making lifestyle modifications to relieve your symptoms.

Fibromyalgia can be treated with specific medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the condition: Duloxetine (Cymbalta), milnacipran (Savella), and pregabalin (Lyrica). Unlike fibromyalgia, there are no drugs to treat CFS specifically.

Both CFS and fibromyalgia treatment may include:

  • Medications, such as pain relievers, antidepressants, and sleep medicine

  • Counseling and psychotherapy

  • Complementary and alternative treatments

  • Exercise

CFS and Fibromyalgia: Similar Challenges

People with CFS and fibromyalgia confront many of the same challenges as a result of their disorders. Both conditions can put a strain on personal relationships and can make holding down a job difficult. Understandably, people with CFS and fibromyalgia can become angry and anxious because of how their condition affects their lives. Support is critical to overcoming the challenges of living with CFS and fibromyalgia. People with CFS and fibromyalgia should work carefully with their doctors to devise an individualized treatment plan. It may take time to find the best treatment plan that works for you.


Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Dec. 15, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2013 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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Treatments for any type of arthritis are largely the same.