What are muscle aches?
Muscle aches, also called myalgias, refer to any kind of discomfort or pain in any muscle of the body.
Muscles include skeletal muscles that are attached to bones and contract to move your body. Although we often think of skeletal muscle aches and pains, problems with other kinds of muscle, such as smooth muscle and cardiac muscle, can also cause aches. Smooth muscles are found in the walls of hollow organs in your body, such as your stomach, bladder, and blood vessels, and they play an important role in normal organ function. Cardiac muscle, which makes up the heart, is responsible for pumping blood throughout your body.
Muscles respond to a command from the brain and nervous system or other stimulus, such as a tap from a reflex hammer during a physical examination. Muscles contract when stimulated and relax after a contraction. Any muscle can be affected by various diseases, disorders and conditions, including infection, trauma, autoimmune diseases, neurological and muscular disorders, malignancy (cancer), and even some medications. Muscle aches and pains can also involve the ligaments, tendons, and fascia, which are the soft tissues that connect the muscles, bones and organs.
You may feel muscle aches and pains in a specific area of the body, such as your neck or back, or you may feel aches and pains all over, such as when you have the flu (influenza). Temporary skeletal muscle aches are often caused by minor muscle strain due to an awkward movement or overuse. This type of pain often involves just one or very few muscles and is relatively acute and intense. Usually abstaining from the activity, rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications help relieve the aches and pain associated with muscle overuse or injury. Muscle aches and pains can also be related to muscle cramping, which is often due to abnormal signaling from the nerves that supply the muscles.
Muscle aches and pains can also be caused by serious diseases, disorders and conditions, such as fibromyalgia, infection and dermatomyositis, which is an inflammatory muscle disease.
Muscle aches can be a sign of a serious disease, disorder or condition, such as an infection of the muscles or systemic lupus erythematosus. Seek prompt medical care if your muscle aches are persistent or causing you concern.
In addition, meningitis can cause muscle pain in the neck, and chest pain that is caused by a heart attack is a type of cardiac muscle ache. If you, or someone you are with, have chest pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, change in consciousness, muscle weakness, inability to move a body part, high fever, vomiting, or stiff neck, seek immediate medical care (call 911).
What other symptoms might occur with muscle aches?
Muscle aches may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, skeletal muscle aches that are due to an injury may be accompanied by bruising and swelling of the area. Muscle aches that are due to a disorder affecting your whole body, such as an infection, may be associated with fever and chills and other flu-like symptoms. Additional symptoms that may occur with muscle aches include:
- Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, sore throat, fatigue, headache, cough)
- Inability to concentrate
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle cramps (contractions)
- Numbness, tingling or burning sensations (called paresthesias)
- Problems walking
- Sleep disturbances
- Swelling at site of injury
- Unexpected weight loss
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, muscle aches may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:
- Change in mental status, such as reduced consciousness or alertness, or confusion
- Chest pain radiating to the arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
- Difficulty breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
- High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Inability to move any part of your body
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Loss of vision
- Progressive weakness and numbness
- Stiff neck
What causes muscle aches?
Skeletal muscle aches and pains are most often caused by injury or trauma resulting in muscle strain or tear. A muscle strain occurs when a few muscle fibers are damaged, whereas a muscle tear is a large number of muscle fibers that are ripped apart or torn.
A torn tendon can also lead to muscle pain. Muscles and tendons are capable of repairing themselves when they are injured. However, in some cases, the muscle or tendon tear can be so severe that surgery is required to repair the damage.
Skeletal muscle aches and pains can also be caused by cramping of the muscles due to excessive or abnormal nerve impulses that make the muscles contract inappropriately. Muscle cramps often occur when the muscle has been overused or during the night. Muscle cramps are worse when you are dehydrated and not getting enough fluids.
Hundreds of different diseases, disorders and conditions can also cause muscles aches and pains, such as inflammatory syndromes, malignancy, trauma and infection. Some of these disorders are serious and potentially disabling, such as fibromyalgia and lupus.
In some cases, muscle aches and pains may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack, meningitis or cancer.
Traumatic causes of muscle aches
Muscle aches can be due to any kind of injury or trauma including:
Blunt force trauma
Muscle strain, pull or tear
Overuse or repetitive motion injury
Pinched nerve (nerve compression)
Neuromuscular diseases, disorders and conditions that cause muscle aches
A number of conditions that affect the muscles or nerves in the body can produce muscle aches. These include:
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability)
Brain or spinal cord injury
Muscle breakdown (rhabdomyolysis)
Muscle infection such as an abscess
Polymyalgia rheumatica (disease characterized by muscle pain and stiffness)
Polymyositis (widespread inflammation and weakness of muscles)
Other possible causes of muscle aches
Muscle aches can be caused by a variety of other diseases, disorders and conditions including:
Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
Influenza (flu) or other infection
Poor circulation (inadequate bloodflow/oxygen to muscle leading to ischemia)
Potassium or calcium (electrolyte) imbalance
Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
Vitamin B12 or D deficiency
Medications and substances that cause muscle aches
Medications that can cause muscle aches include:
ACE inhibitors for lowering blood pressure
Statins for lowering cholesterol
Antiviral agent Zidovudine
Questions for diagnosing the cause of muscle aches
To help diagnose the underlying cause of your muscle aches and pains your licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. Providing complete answers to these questions will help your provider in diagnosing the cause of your muscle aches. Questions asked during your examination generally include:
Are you experiencing any other symptoms at the same time, such as a sore throat or fever?
Do you feel pain in one particular area or all over?
How long have you had the condition?
What body parts are affected?
What makes your symptoms better or worse?
What other medications or supplements, if any, are you currently taking?
Complications associated with muscle aches depend on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, muscle aches resulting from a degenerative condition such as lupus can lead to inactivity and its associated complications. Fortunately, many types of skeletal muscle aches and pains can often be alleviated or minimized by physical therapy, basic self-help measures, and following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor. However, over time, muscle aches and the underlying cause can lead to complications including: