Fibromyalgia and IBS: What’s the Connection?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on December 13, 2015
3 min read

Knots grip your arms and legs, and your muscles ache. Your belly has cramps, too. Could the pain be connected? If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or fibromyalgia, it’s likely you have the other one, too. They often happen together, but how they are related is not understood.

Only a small amount of people in the U.S. have fibromyalgia. But for people with IBS it’s much more common. Over half of IBS patients also have symptoms of fibromyalgia.

“In general, it is likely that they coexist for years, but they can flare at the same time or at different times,” says Lin Chang, MD, co-director of the Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress.

IBS and fibromyalgia fall into a broad category called functional disorders. This is when your body isn’t working as it should, but doctors can’t see anything wrong with you.

The pain of IBS is centered inside your body, in the internal organs. With fibromyalgia you have another kind of pain, which is in the skin and deep tissue. Even though the source of discomfort stems from different places, researchers and doctors believe their causes are related.

In the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Daniel Clauw MD, director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, writes that many pain experts believe that they are a single lifelong disorder that causes pain in different places over time.

With both conditions, you have more brain activity in the parts that process pain. Your sense of pain can be enhanced.

The exact problem is not well understood, but in these functional disorders, your nervous system is overly sensitive or hyperactive. Your immune systems is thought to play a role, and doctors are looking at genetics, too.

Stress can lead to any of these functional disorders. In one survey, more than half of fibromyalgia patients reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, a condition that affects the brain.

Antidepressants can help both IBS and fibromyalgia. You could also have trouble with sleeping, headaches, anxiety, and depression, so talk to your doctor about prescription medicines that could help.

As odd as it may seem, pain medicines like opioids are not very effective. Over-the-counter NSAID pain medications like ibuprofen or aspirin don’t work well by themselves, but they can be used with antidepressants to treat fibromyalgia.

Focus on treating both the physical and the mental symptoms equally. Learn all you can about these disorders. The more you know about your condition, the better you will be able to take care of yourself.

Exercise will help, especially cardio. It gets your heart rate up and builds your muscle strength. But start out slowly. You can also try yoga or tai chi. Chang says she sometimes recommends meditation, which can calm the mind and the body.

Some research suggests that people with fibromyalgia may have a higher incidence of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.  Talk to your doctor to see if you should be tested. If you do have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a gluten free diet may give you relief from your GI symptoms.

Stay open to trying all the treatments your doctor suggests, even if you have to do more than one at a time. The usual treatments like drugs and surgery may not help.