Autoimmune Conditions and Fibromyalgia
What does fibromyalgia have to do with autoimmune conditions? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in this post.
There is some confusion and misinformation around autoimmune conditions and fibromyalgia. The reason for the confusion is because fibromyalgia shares so many of the same symptoms as autoimmune conditions. This is not just an academic problem of classifying the illness, but could lead to misdiagnosis and improper treatment in the worst case scenario.
So what exactly do we mean by autoimmune condition or response? Well, you’re probably aware that your body’s immune system is designed to attack foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. This is a healthy and necessary function for your survival, full stop. The scars left behind by these cellular battles, so to speak, are temporary inflammation and other kinds of damage at the site.
But sometimes your immune system mistakes healthy tissue for one of these dangerous invaders and attacks the body. This leaves behind the pain-causing inflammation but carries no benefit.
Is Fibromyalgia an Autoimmune Condition?
There hasn’t been definitive proof yet, but the current medical understanding is that fibromyalgia itself is not an autoimmune condition. Why is this the case?
The reason is in laboratory tests like the positive antinuclear antibody (ANA) test, people with fibro typically have levels below the diagnostic threshold; the levels are within the range of “normal”. They might be on the high end of “normal”, but they’re not high enough to qualify for an autoimmune diagnosis. Anything above 0 on the ANA test is indicative of excess inflammation in the body. But autoimmune diseases are associated with particularly high inflammatory markers on this test. Furthermore, researchers haven’t found much evidence of cellular damage at the site of immune system activity.
Fibro…and Other Autoimmune Conditions?
Just because fibro patients typically fall under the autoimmune ranges on these tests doesn’t mean that inflammation still isn’t a problem.
The thing is, just because you have fibro doesn’t rule out legitimately having an autoimmune disease as well. This is what we mean when we say that fibromyalgia is not an exclusionary condition. It’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of people with the autoimmune diseases lupus and rheumatoid arthritis also have fibromyalgia.
Let’s go over some of the common autoimmune conditions that have a lot of overlap with fibro.
I’m just going to cover the absolute basics on these, since we’ll be giving each of these their own post at some point in the future.
First, let’s talk about Lupus. Like fibromyalgia, symptoms include fatigue, muscle pain, memory problems, anxiety, and depression. But its most distinguishing characteristic is the butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and bridge of the nose which sometimes occurs and is particularly emblematic. Inflammation in the joints is common in lupus but not in fibro. Finally, skin lesions, anemia, and seizures are lupus symptoms that are not common with fibromyalgia.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is another major autoimmune condition, though not all types of arthritis are. This disease is characterized by terrible pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Patients also typically have a restricted range of motion. Commonalities between the conditions include flare-ups, dull, ache-y pain, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and feelings of depression and anxiety.
Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic condition in which the moisture-producing glands are damaged, which causes the quality and quantity of saliva and tears to be significantly lowered. It’s hallmark symptoms are dry eyes and mouth, but it can also cause dysfunction of the kidneys, lungs, liver, and pancreas. Overlapping symptoms with fibro include fatigue, sleep problems, and muscle weakness. One source reported that fibromyalgia has been present in 44-55% of Sjögren’s patients.
The last autoimmune condition we wanted to mention is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. This is a condition in which the body’s antibodies attack and destroy the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located in the neck area and produces hormones that regulate many important things, such as heart function, digestion, metabolic rate, and muscle control. Symptoms that overlap with fibro include fatigue, pain in the neck, hips, and knees, increased cold sensitivity, and memory lapses. With Hashimoto’s, it’s more common for your skin and hair to become dry and for your bowels to slow down leading to constipation. Up to 1/3rd of people with Hashimoto’s have fibromyalgia, and it’s thought to be a contributing factor in the development of fibro for some people.
These are just some prominent autoimmune conditions that are linked to fibromyalgia. Other ones include Multiple Sclerosis, Vasculitis, and Guillain-barré Syndrome. So to recap our main points:
- Fibromyalgia itself is not autoimmune in nature.
- Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakes healthy tissue for foreign invaders.
- You could have fibromyalgia and an autoimmune condition at the same time.
- And the most common autoimmune conditions associated with fibro are lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
- The Fibro Manual by Dr. Ginevra Liptan (2016) http://www.drliptan.com/book