Definition and Overview
Pain in the extremities can affect different parts of the body including but not limited to the shoulders, neck, wrists, legs, and arms. The pain can be described as dull, sudden, throbbing, excruciating, long-term, aching, lingering, or manageable.
A variety of factors can cause or trigger pain in the extremities, which can range from an underlying disease, congenital disorder, and injury. There are also times when the pain is psychological or attributed to lifestyle factors.
Symptoms that go along with the pain can significantly vary, which also means there is no single treatment for extremity pain. Different health care providers typically work together to treat, manage, and cure pain.
Causes of Condition
Here are just some of the most common reasons for pain in the extremities:
- Injury – Injuries can be a fracture, sudden stretch of a muscle, or tear of the ligaments. These injuries may be the result when a person experiences accidents like falling off the stairs, banging the arms on the door, or meeting a vehicular accident. Injuries may also refer to breakage of the skin like lesions and wounds.
While many injuries are sudden, some can just worsen over time. For example, certain musculoskeletal injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow develop due to the repetitive use of the joints or muscles, which may lead to tears, sprain, or strain. These types of injuries are now often seen in the workplace where people limit their movements to certain postures.
Congenital – Congenital deformity develops during conception. While some of these physical defects are manageable or completely harmless and painless, a number may result in recurring or even long-term pain, which can significantly decrease the quality of life.
Medications – Many drugs have adverse side effects including muscle pain. In some cases, the pain in extremities disappears after the medications are stopped or modified.
Lifestyle factors – Obesity, for example, can cause pain, particularly in the lower extremities such as the knees and ankles. The extra weight can add more pressure to the joints of the lower torso, making them more prone to pain the more they are used. On the other hand, certain positions like when a person sleeps, can increase the risk of extremity pain, usually because of how the posture is held for a prolonged period.
Nerve issues – It is common among people with problems in the nervous system to also experience pain. A good example for this cause is multiple sclerosis (MS). During the early stages of MS, the person may develop tingling or numbing pain as the immune system attacks the myelin, a protective sheath for the nerves. As the disease progresses, it can lead to nerve damage. Moreover, since the extremities are connected to the brain through thousands of nerve endings, if the nerve is compressed, pain may easily develop.
Infection – We are all surrounded by millions of pathogens, some of which are harmful to the body. Although the body is equipped with an immune system to fight them off, sometimes they are able to enter, causing all sorts of symptoms including pain.
Cysts and other overgrowths – The formation of lumps or cysts that can grow underneath the skin or inside the body may manifest into extremity pain as they gain in size and press more into the organs, including the joints and bones.
Psychological – Some mental disorders may modify a person’s perception such as feeling pain in the body even if he does not have it. People who are hypochondriac, for example, have heightened senses to symptoms.
Autoimmune disease – Many autoimmune diseases are often accompanied by pain in the extremities. These types of disorders usually have no definite cause, but there are risk factors including a family history. In this case, the body’s immune system attacks the tissues and organs, thinking they are threats. Rheumatoid arthritis, a common autoimmune disease, affects the joints, causing redness, swelling, pain, and deformity.
Other underlying conditions – Diabetes can lead to nerve damage especially in the lower extremities if left untreated. The buildup of plaque in the arteries can also cause extremity pain as it can contribute to poor circulation.
Pain can be described as:
The pain may be localized, which means it is found in only one area, or systemic, meaning it can be felt in other parts of the body. A person with fibromyalgia, for instance, can have several tender points.
It may also be accompanied by other symptoms such as:
- Inflammation of the joints or muscles
- Limited mobility
- Reduced quality of life
- Nausea and vomiting
Who to See and Treatments Available
The doctor to approach depends on the kind of pain felt, its location, the person’s medical history, and other symptoms. Normally, though, the patient approaches a GP, who then refers the patient to a specialist. Injuries to the skeletal system are often handled by orthopedic specialists while overgrowths may be referred to an oncologist if they turn out to be cancerous.
Treatments are in accordance with the exact cause of extremity pain. Approaches can include:
- Surgery to repair fractures and other serious injuries
- Removal of any overgrowths and cysts
- Physical and occupational therapy to lessen the episodes of pain and to allow the patient to be as self-reliant as possible
- Complementary medicine such as acupuncture, which can help alleviate pain
- Management of the underlying condition
- Treatment of nerve damage to allow better communication between the extremities and the brain
- Modification of lifestyle (e.g., diet, exercise, posture)
- Change of medication that may be causing painful side effects
- Wound management
- Limiting mobility to avoid further injuring the extremity and to speed up the healing process
Mental health therapies such as cognitive behavioral counseling
American Chronic Pain Association