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Fibromyalgia & Myofascial Pain Syndrome

What's the Difference Between Fibromyalgia & Myofascial Pain Syndrome?

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Updated July 02, 2014

Photo © A.D.A.M.

The fascia is a body-wide web of connective tissues.

Photo © A.D.A.M.

Fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome often go together. Because of the frequent overlap and some similar symptoms, they're often mistaken for the same condition and, as a result, people with both are sometimes only diagnosed with and treated for one.

The distinction between myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) and fibromyalgia (FMS) is crucial one for three main reasons:

  1. They require different treatment.
  2. You can eliminate trigger points.
  3. MPS pain can exacerbate FMS, and treating MPS can calm FMS.

Some researchers use the name "chronic myofascial pain" (CMP) instead of myofascial pain syndrome because of evidence it's a disease, not a syndrome. (A "syndrome" is a set of symptoms without a known cause.)

What is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?

In MPS, muscles and connective tissues (which make up the fascia) develop what's called a trigger point (TrP). (These are not the same as FMS tender points.) A trigger point is a small, hard knot that you can sometimes feel under your skin. The knot itself can be painful, especially when poked, but it often causes pain in another area, which is called referred pain.

Trigger points typically form as a result of trauma to the tissue. Experts don't know why damage that heals normally in most people causes TrPs in others. However, studies suggest that muscle trauma in some people leads to malformations where the nerve cells connect to muscle cells. This suggests MPS is a neuromuscular disease.

Why Do Fibromyalgia & Myofascial Pain Syndrome Go Together?

Why people with MPS frequently develop FMS isn't yet clear, but a growing body of evidence shows that chronic pain can make changes to the central nervous system, resulting in central sensitization. However, not everyone with MPS develops FMS. If theories are correct, early treatment of MPS may help prevent FMS.

An emerging umbrella term for FMS, MPS, and other conditions involving central sensitization is central sensitivity syndromes.

Symptoms of Myofascial Pain Syndrome & Fibromyalgia

Some symptoms associated with MPS are similar to symptoms associated with FMS, while others appear to be distinct. The symptoms they have in common include:

  • Soft-tissue pain ranging from mild to severe
  • Headaches and/or migraines
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Balance problems and/or dizziness
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) & ear pain
  • Memory problems
  • Unexplained sweating
  • Worsening symptoms due to stress, changes/extremes in weather, and physical activity

Symptoms associated with MPS but not with FMS include:

  • Numbness in the extremities
  • Popping or clicking joints
  • Limited range of motion in joints, especially the jaw
  • Doubled or blurry vision
  • Unexplained nausea

Symptoms associated with FMS but not with MPS include:

  • Fatigue
  • Panic attacks
  • Feeling overwhelmed due to high levels of sensory input
  • Allergies & sensitivites
  • Periodic confusion & disorientation

(For more fibromyalgia symptoms, see The Monster List of Fibromyalgia Symptoms.)

Diagnosing Myofascial Pain Syndrome

Referred pain makes MPS especially hard to diagnose and treat. Typically, a doctor says, "Where does it hurt?" and then looks where you point. To treat MPS, you and your doctor need to examine your symptoms and figure out where your trigger points are.

Your doctor can find trigger points by feel or based on symptoms. Tests such as magnetic resonance elastography and tissue biopsy may show abnormalities in TrPs, but their roles in diagnosing MPS still aren't clear.

By contrast, no test or scan reveals abnormalities in the tissues where people with FMS experience pain.

Treating Myofascial Pain Syndrome

You have several options for treating MPS:

  • Trigger-Point Injections: The doctor inserts a needle directly into a TrP or in several places around it to loosen up the taut bands. The doctor may inject a pain-relieving medication, such as corticosteroids or lidocaine. (Note: some doctors believe corticosteroids can exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms.) When no medication is used, it's called dry needling.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice similar to dry needling. While studies of its use in MPS are limited they are promising, and many patients and practitioners report good results.
  • Physical Therapy: A special kind of therapy called spray-and-strech is common for treating MPS. A physical therapist guides you through stretching exercises while spraying a numbing substance on your muscle. The therapist may also use certain massage techniques to loosen your muscles and TrPs. In addition, a therapist can work with you on factors such as poor posture that may contribute to MPS.
  • Medications: Common drugs for MPS include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Aleve (naproxen) or ibuprofen-based drugs like Advil and Motrin, and tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, doxepin, and nortriptyline.

MPS Treatments vs. FMS Treatments

Here again, there is some overlap but also important differences. Treatments used for both MPS and FMS include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Physcial therapy (although in different forms)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (although SSRI/SNRI antidepressants are becoming more common for FMS)

Studies show trigger-point injections are not effective at relieving fibromyalgia tender points, and NSAIDs are not effective at treating FMS pain because they target inflammation, and FMS is not known to be an inflammatory condition.

(For more on fibromyalgia treatments, see Treating Fibromyalgia - A Multidisciplinary Approach.)

Living With Fibromyalgia & Myofascial Pain Syndrome

With significant differences in their symptoms, diagnostics and treatment, it's clear that fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome are not the same condition. As someone who has both of them, however, I know that it can be extremely difficult to determine which condition is causing which pain.

By working both on your own and with your doctor and/or physical therapist, you may be able to figure out where you have trigger points and how best to treat them without exacerbating your fibromyalgia. Relieving the myofascial pain is likely to quiet your fibromyalgia symptoms, so you could well see a double benefit.

Sources:

Clinical Biomechanics. 2008 Jun;23(5):623-9. Epub 2008 Feb 21. "Ability of magnetic resonance elastography to assess taut bands."

Schmerz. 2003 Dec;17(6):419-24. "Diagnosis and therapy of myofascial trigger points."

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