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 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:
- Bone pain
- Joint or muscle stiffness
- Joint swelling or redness
- Muscle pain
- Muscle weakness
- Neck pain
Other symptoms that may occur along with aches
Aches may accompany symptoms related to systemic illness or other body systems. Such symptoms include:
- Fever and chills
- Neck pain
- Skin rash
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Target-shaped mark on your skin after a tick bite
- Tiredness, fatigue or malaise
- Vomiting or diarrhea
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:
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:
Lifting heavy weights
More than typical usage of a muscle, such as during a hard workout
Sprains and strains
Systemic causes of aches
Aches can also be caused by systemic illnesses including:
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)
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?
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