Rheumatoid Arthritis and PTSD

Key Takeaways

  • Fibromyalgia prevalent among service members who also had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Nearly 40 percent of military members seeking treatment for PTSD were found to have co-existing fibromyalgia.
  • Studies suggest that fibromyalgia may be under-reported or under-diagnosed in civilian men.

No one knows what causes fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that also causes widespread muscle pain as well as fatigue and memory problems (“fibro fog”). Sometimes it crops up after a physically or emotionally traumatic event, and it seems to be more commonly diagnosed in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Now a new study confirms this link by examining fibromyalgia incidence among members of the U.S. military. The study, which was published in Arthritis Care & Research, is the first large-scale study to examine the relationship between fibromyalgia and PTSD in active service members.

How The Study Worked

Researchers used data from three different PTSD treatment trials as well as data from a study involving military members who had not yet been deployed. Altogether, more than 4,000 people completed surveys related to fibromyalgia and PTSD.

To assess fibromyalgia, the surveys asked about widespread pain as well as cognitive symptoms, fatigue, and depression. Participants were assumed to have fibromyalgia if such symptoms were significant and persisted for at least three months.

PTSD was assessed in the pre-deployment group with questions about whether someone was “re-experiencing” the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks: feeling or acting like a traumatic event is happening again
  • Avoidance symptoms: avoiding things that would remind them of the traumatic experience
  • Arousal symptoms: being easily startled or having angry outbursts

Study participants who were already in another PTSD treatment trial had already been diagnosed by clinicians.

According to the findings, nearly 11 percent of pre-deployment military members who had PTSD also met the criteria for fibromyalgia (versus less than 1 percent of the pre-deployment group who did not have PTSD). Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of the military members who were already in treatment trials for PTSD were found to have co-existing fibromyalgia.

The authors concluded that “the prevalence of [fibromyalgia] was significantly higher in service members with comorbid PTSD and highest among those seeking treatment for PTSD.”

What These Findings Mean

While the prevalence of fibromyalgia in the pre-deployment group was similar to that of the general population, the authors explained that it was “higher than expected for a predominantly male cohort.”

In the general population, fibromyalgia is far more common among women — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is twice as likely in women. This finding might suggest that fibromyalgia is under-reported or under-diagnosed in civilian men.

Although more research is needed to fully understand the connection between fibromyalgia and PTSD, “non-pharmacologic therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapies, that focus on underlying psychological distress are recommended for individuals with [fibromyalgia] and PTSD,” the researchers noted.

Get Involved in Arthritis Research

If you are diagnosed with fibromyalgia or another rheumatic disease, we encourage you to participate in future studies by joining CreakyJoints’ patient research registry, ArthritisPower. ArthritisPower is the first-ever patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. Learn more and sign up here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fibromyalgia. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm.

Lawrence‐Wolff KM, et al. The prevalence of fibromyalgia syndrome in active duty military personnel. Arthritis Care & Research. October 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.24801.

National Institute of Mental Health. Post-traumatic stress disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.

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