Aches

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What are aches?

Aches are nagging pains. The term aches often evokes the image of muscle pains or joint pains, but any part of the body or organ system may give rise to an ache. Aches may be localized to one area or may be generalized. Aches may range in severity from a minor nuisance to a disabling systemic problem.

Aches may have a wide number of causes. Common causes include sprains, strains, arthritis, and overuse injuries. Less common, but more serious, causes include intraabdominal problems, such as appendicitis and hernias; diffuse infections, such as influenza and sepsis; and life-threatening problems such as cancer.

The first step in establishing the cause of aches is a physical examination by a doctor. Depending on the doctor’s clinical judgment, further diagnostic testing may be required. This testing might include blood and urine tests; imaging tests, such as X-ray, ultrasound, and CAT scan (also known as CT scan or CT); and specialized testing. In some cases, invasive testing under the care of a specialist may be needed.

The treatment of aches depends on their cause. For aches due to overuse injuries or trauma, rest, ice, elevation, and over-the-counter analgesics, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are the mainstays of therapy. More serious causes of aches may require more intensive therapy that is specific to the underlying diagnosis. As with treatment, the prognosis of aches depends on the underlying cause.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have intolerable aches, you experience weakness or paralysis, you have difficulty breathing, or if you have vomiting and fever with a stiff neck.

Seek prompt medical care if you have aches lasting longer than three days, if your aches occur after starting a new medication, or if your aches are severe .

What other symptoms might occur with aches?

Aches may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other musculoskeletal symptoms most often accompany aches, but symptoms arising in other body systems can also occur with aches.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with aches

Aches may accompany other symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with aches

Aches may accompany symptoms related to systemic illness or other body systems. Such symptoms include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, aches may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty moving or controlling an arm, leg, foot or hand
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Neck stiffness with fever or vomiting
  • Prolonged vomiting
  • Widespread and severe muscle weakness or paralysis

What causes aches?

Aches are most often caused by some type of injury to a muscle, bone, ligament or tendon. These injuries can be mild and inconsequential, such as might be sustained during a typical workout. This type of mild ache is normal and is a sign your body was stressed and is repairing itself.

Aches can also be due to common illnesses like the flu or fibromyalgia, or to more rare illnesses like meningitis, lupus or rhabdomyolysis. Several of the rarer causes of aches, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, can be caused by a tick bite in certain regions of the United States.

Musculoskeletal causes of aches

Aches may be caused by physical exertion or injury including:

  • Injury

  • Lifting heavy weights

  • More than typical usage of a muscle, such as during a hard workout

  • Sprains and strains

  • Trauma

Systemic causes of aches

Aches can also be caused by systemic illnesses including:

  • Arthritis

  • Dermatomyositis (disease characterized by rash and muscle inflammation)

  • Drug interactions or reactions

  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)

  • Infections, such as influenza

  • Intraabdominal conditions, such as appendicitis or hernia

  • Lyme disease (inflammatory bacterial disease spread by ticks)

  • Myositis (muscle inflammation)

  • Polymyositis (disease characterized by muscle inflammation)

  • Rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues) and other connective tissue diseases

Serious or life-threatening causes of aches

In some cases, aches may be a symptom of a serious or acutely life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. These include:

  • Blood clot, or any type of blood vessel block (vascular occlusion)

  • Cancers

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of aches

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your aches including:

  • When did you first notice your aches?

  • Have you had aches like this before?

  • Did you injure yourself or do any strenuous workouts a day or two before the aches?

  • Are you taking any medications?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Have you traveled outside the United States recently?

  • Have you been camping or hiking recently in an area with ticks?

What are the potential complications of aches?

Aches are usually mild and without major complications, especially when they are a result of normal exercise. In some cases, however, aches can indicate a serious injury or serious illness within your musculoskeletal system.

Because aches can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment in some rare cases can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage or other neurologic deficits

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 5
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.
  1. 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
  2. Pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/pain.html