Muscle aches

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 15, 2015
StartSymptomsMuscle aches

At some point in their lifetime almost everyone experiences aching muscles. Such aching can be minor and dull, or range to excruciating and sharp. Most muscle pain is caused by tension, overuse or injury. But some muscle aches are symptoms of illnesses or disease.


Definition & Facts

Also known as muscle pain or myalgia, aching muscles can naturally resolve within a few days without treatment or may persist for longer periods. Most muscle pain is isolated to a small number of muscles within any region of the body.

The neck, legs, back and hands are the most frequently affected areas. These regions are typically aggravated by overexertion or strain during general daily activities, which then results in muscle pain for a day or two following the overexertion. When muscle aches are felt all over the body at once and not localized to just a few muscles, the condition is called systemic muscle pain.


Tension, overuse, stress and injuries are most frequently the cause of muscle pain. Most people who feel muscle aches can easily determine the cause of the pain or relate it to recent activity. General muscle aches are often caused by excessive tension in a region of the body, overuse of the muscle or body part during physical exertion or injury caused during physical labor or exercise.

Injuries to muscles which cause pain are often referred to as muscle strains or sprains. A sprained ankle, for example, is a common pain in the ankle caused by injury or misuse of the muscle.

When tension, overuse, injury or stress are not the cause and illness, infection or medication side effects are to blame, the muscle pain is referred to as "systemic." Systemic pain is often caused by:

When to see a doctor

If muscle aches are not from a known source, such as a prior day's overexertion, stress, tension or a possible strain, there may be something else wrong within the body. If the muscle pain does not go away or seems unexplained, a doctor's advice should be sought if:

  • The pain persists beyond a few days
  • The pain is severe without a known cause
  • A rash accompanies the pain
  • A tick bite occurred before the pain
  • Redness or swelling is present with the aching
  • If a medication change was made just prior to the onset of pain

When muscles hurt and any of the following occur, a visit to the emergency room is warranted:

Treatment & Therapy

Most often, self care is sufficient for alleviation of muscle aches. Most such aches are the result of a pulled or strained muscle, or a known origin of stress, tension or injury. Self treatment for muscle aches includes four parts:

  • Rest the muscle by not exerting it.
  • Ice the aching muscle using an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas as a compress. Continue this three times per day, 15 to 20 minutes per episode, until the muscle recovers.
  • Elevate the injured body part to help reduce swelling.

Self-treatment or doctor ordered care for sore muscles may include taking acetaminophen, over-the-counter purchase or prescriptions for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), taking warm baths and massage of the affected area.

When visiting the doctor's office for muscle aches, the healthcare provider may ask questions, like:

  • When did your muscle pain start?
  • Where is the pain? Is it in one isolated area or all over?
  • Does the pain travel or remain in the same location?
  • What causes the pain to intensify? What makes it feel better?
  • Is there a pattern to the pain?
  • Have you recently started any new medications?

The doctor then may order some tests or treatment such as a complete blood count, other blood tests to screen for lyme disease, or physical therapy.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

If tensions or physical activity are believed to be responsible for muscle aches, there are some things which can be done to decrease risk of future muscle pain. Those include:

  • Always spend time stretching muscles before starting physical exercise or engaging in strenuous activities.
  • Follow up workouts or other exercise with stretching.
  • Drink plenty of fluids like water, to remain hydrated. This is especially important when exercising or being active.
  • Help your muscles remain toned by engaging in regular exercise.
  • When working in repetitive action environments, get up and stretch regularly, providing consistently used muscles with a break from the activity.
  • When working at a desk, get up and stretch every sixty minutes to avoid muscle stress or build-up of tension.

If muscle aches are not prevented or alleviated through self-care means, seeing a doctor is the right choice for treatment and prevention of additional problems.

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