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.
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:
- Infections the body is working to fight, such as the flu, staphylococcal infections and viral infections
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Lyme disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever]
- Polymyalgia rheumatica
- Use of statins, ACE inhibitors, other medications or illicit drugs such as cocaine
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:
- Water retention and/or reduced urine volume accompanies the pain
- Swallowing becomes difficult
- Vomiting and/or a fever occur
- There is difficulty in catching breath
- Dizziness occurs
- Neck stiffness occurs
- Muscles are weak
- The affected area of the body becomes immobile
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.
- Compress the hurting muscle using a compression bandage, to reduce swelling.
- 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?
Prevention & Prophylaxis
- 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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