Definition and Overview
As suggested by the name, muscle pains, clinically known as myalgia, are aches and pain felt in the muscles. Since virtually every part of the body has muscle tissues in it, muscle pains are extremely common as a condition. In fact, all individuals have had this kind of pain at least once in their lifetime. Usually affecting more than one muscle at a time, it can range from mild to severe and excruciating, especially if a damaged muscle is involved. Oftentimes, muscle pains go away within a few days, although some have aches persist for months. Muscle pain can occur in any part of the body, but it commonly occurs in the neck, back, legs and hands.
Causes of Muscle Pains
Muscle pains are often related to tension or stress, muscle overuse, or physical injury due to exercise or work. These causes are relatively easy to identify and the pain tends to involve only specific muscles where injury, trauma or overuse occurs.
Muscle pain can also be caused by one or a combination of the following:
- Use of certain drugs such as statins (for managing cholesterol) and ACE inhibitors (for blood pressure regulation) or increasing the dosage of such medications
- Repetitive strain injuries
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Muscle cramps
- Dermatomyositis, a muscle condition that involves the inflammation of the muscles accompanied with skin rash (inflammatory myopathy)
- Electrolyte imbalance, caused by calcium or potassium deficiency
- Fibromyalgia, a common condition characterized by chronic pain that spreads throughout the body; a condition linked to fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, depression and anxiety
Muscle pains can also be a symptom or sign of a serious condition that affects certain parts or the whole body such as:
- Viral infection such as influenza
- Lyme disease caused by tick bites or infections
- Staphylococcus infection
- Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses
- Muscle abscess
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, also a tick-borne disease
- Trichinosis (roundworm) infection
- Lupus, an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune system attacks the muscles, joints and other body systems
- Polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that affects the shoulders and neck
- Pain related to rheumatoid arthritis
When to See a Doctor
Muscle pains caused by minor injuries, stress or exercise usually respond well to home treatment and enough rest. In others, muscle pain can resolve on its own in just a few days without any intervention. More details on home care remedies will be explained in the next section.
However, muscle aches and pains related to severe injuries or systemic disease requires immediate medical care. It is important to schedule a visit with your doctor if you experience any or a combination of the following:
- A tick bite or rash along with your muscle pain
- Signs of infection such as swelling or redness around a sore muscle
- Muscle pain that lasts longer than a week
- Muscle pain that started after taking a new medication (or increased dosage of the same medication)
- Severe, unexplained pain
- Poor blood circulation in the area of the pain
- Muscle pain accompanied by vomiting, stiff neck or high fever
- Extreme muscle weakness
- Inability to move any part of the body
- Shortness of breath or difficulty swallowing
Diagnosis and Treatment
During your visit to the doctor, your GP will ask you certain questions about your muscle pain - such as the date of onset of pain, location and severity of pain, medications taken, and activities performed. After evaluating your physical and medical history, the doctor may also suggest performing a blood test (complete blood count) and enzyme tests to identify or rule out other possible causes. The aim of these diagnostic tests is to determine the underlying cause of the muscle pain and treat it accordingly. For muscle pains caused by severe injury or systemic condition, your GP may refer you to a specialist for further testing and treatment.
Muscle pains caused by stress, strain or minor injury respond well to home remedies. Some of the measures that can alleviate discomfort caused by muscle aches are as follows;
- Resting the affected area of the body
- Intake of over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen
- Intake of anti-inflammatory medications if muscle pain is accompanied by inflammation
- Application of ice on the affected area (usually within 1-2 days following minor injury or sprain)
- Heat compress to alleviate chronic pain (pain lasting 3 or 4 days)
- Elevation of the affected area while resting
- Gently stretching the affected muscles
- Avoidance of strenuous activities until the muscle pain completely subsides
- Engaging in stress-relieving and relaxation activities such as yoga and meditation
- Getting enough sleep and rest
Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or specialized pain solutions for persistent or chronic muscle pain. A physical therapist can teach you proper toning and stretching techniques as well as aerobic exercises to manage and prevent muscle pains. Physical therapy is often accompanied by a massage to help heal damaged muscle tissues. If the pain is caused by injury or trauma, strengthening routines are also performed to reduce the chance of recurrence in the future.
Prevention of Muscle Pains
If you frequently have muscle pains due to physical activity or stress, there are ways to lower your risk of developing another muscle ache.
Here are some tips that can help prevent muscle pains in the future:
- Always do adequate stretching exercises before and after engaging in rigorous physical activity
- Always keep yourself hydrated, especially during hot days and days when you are physically active
- Exercise regularly
During long days at work, do stretching exercises every now and then to prevent muscle strain or tension
Bennett RM. “Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.” In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 282.