Muscle Pain (Myalgia)

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What is muscle pain?

Muscle pain, also called myalgia, refers to pain or discomfort 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 pain, problems with other kinds of muscle, such as smooth muscle and cardiac muscle, can also cause pain. Smooth muscles are found in the walls of hollow organs in your body, such as your stomach, bladder, and blood vessels, and play a big 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. Muscles can become painful due to various diseases, disorders and conditions, including infection, trauma, autoimmune diseases, neurological and muscular disorders, malignancy (cancer), and even some medications. Muscle pain can also involve the ligaments, tendons and fascia, which are the soft tissues that connect the muscles, bones and organs.

You may feel muscle pain in a specific muscle of the body, such as a back muscle or leg muscle, or you may feel more diffuse muscle pain all over, such as when you have the flu (influenza). A person with chest pain who is having a heart attack or angina is feeling cardiac muscle pain. Menstrual cramps are a type of smooth muscle pain in the uterus.

Temporary skeletal muscle pain is 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. Abstaining from the activity, rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications generally helps relieve the pain associated with muscle overuse or injury. Muscle pain can also be caused by serious diseases, disorders and conditions, such as fibromyalgia, infections and dermatomyositis, which is an inflammatory muscle disease.

Muscle pain can be a symptom of a serious disease, disorder or condition, such as a severe muscle tear or infection. Seek prompt medical care if your muscle pain is persistent, becoming worse, or causing you concern.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have difficulty breathing or swallowing, chest pain, severe muscle weakness, inability to move a body part, or stiff neck accompanied by vomiting and a high fever.

What other symptoms might occur with muscle pain?

Muscle pain may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, muscle pain that is caused by an injury may be accompanied by bruising and swelling of the area. Additional symptoms that may occur with muscle pain include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, muscle pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack or meningitis. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness such as fainting or unconsciousness
  • Change in mental status such as confusion
  • Chest pain radiating to the arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Difficulty breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Inability to move any part of your body
  • Loss of vision
  • No urine output
  • Progressive weakness and numbness
  • Seizure
  • Stiff neck with a high fever

What causes muscle pain?

Skeletal muscle pain is 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. Muscle aches and pains can also be caused by cramping due to excessive or abnormal nerve impulses that make the muscles contract inappropriately.

Hundreds of different diseases, disorders and conditions can cause muscles aches and pains, such as inflammatory syndromes, malignancy, trauma, and infection. Some of these disorders are serious and possibly 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 pain

Muscle pain can be due to any kind of injury or trauma including:

  • Blunt force trauma

  • Muscle strain, pull or tear

  • Overuse or repetitive motion

  • Pinched nerve (nerve compression)

Neuromuscular diseases, disorders and conditions

A number of conditions that affect the muscles or nerves can produce muscle pain. 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

  • Dermatomyositis (condition characterized by muscle inflammation and skin rash)

  • Lyme disease (inflammatory bacterial disease spread by ticks)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, lack of coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Muscle breakdown (rhabdomyolysis)

  • Muscle infection such as an abscess

  • Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder that impairs movement and coordination)

  • Polymyalgia rheumatica (disease characterized by muscle pain and stiffness)

  • Polymyositis (widespread inflammation and weakness of muscles)

  • Stroke

Other possible causes of muscle pain

Muscle pain can be caused by a variety of other diseases, disorders and conditions including:

  • Cancer

  • Depression

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Heart attack (myocardial infarction)

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)

  • Influenza (flu) or other infection

  • Kidney failure

  • Poor circulation (inadequate bloodflow/oxygen to muscle leading to ischemia)

  • Potassium or calcium (electrolyte) imbalance

  • Pregnancy

  • 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 pain

Medications that can cause muscle aches and pain include:

  • Alcohol

  • ACE inhibitors for lowering blood pressure

  • Cocaine

  • Statins for lowering cholesterol

  • Zidovudine

Questions for diagnosing the cause of muscle pain

To help diagnose the underlying cause of muscle pain 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 underlying cause of your symptoms. Questions during your examination generally include:

  • Do you have any other symptoms, 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 the pain better or worse?

  • What other medications, if any, are you currently taking?

What are the potential complications of muscle pain?

Complications associated with muscle pain depend on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, muscle pain resulting from fibromyalgia or a degenerative condition, such as lupus, can lead to inactivity and its associated complications. Fortunately, many skeletal muscle pain conditions can often be alleviated or minimized by physical therapy, basic self-help measures, and following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor. However, with time, muscle pain and the underlying cause can lead to complications including:

  • Chronic pain

  • Immobility and its associated complications (such as bed sores and blood clots)

  • Intractable pain that does not respond to treatment

  • Muscle atrophy

  • Muscle contracture

  • Permanent muscle or nerve damage (due to a pinched nerve) including paralysis

  • Poor quality of life

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 31
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Muscle Aches. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003178.htm
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