Muscle Pain: Causes, Treatments & Prevention

The Complete Guide to Muscle Pain: Causes, Treatments & Prevention

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

Like many of the tissues in the body, muscles can hurt, too. Muscular pain is called myalgia. A wide variety of conditions can make muscles hurt, and that hurt can be classified as acute (temporary) or chronic pain. Fortunately, a wide variety of things can help relieve muscle pain. 

What is muscle pain?

Muscles hurt because they get damaged. Tiny tears can cause dull, relatively short-term aches. Bigger tears, like strains, take longer to heal and often shift from sharp, sudden pain to duller aches over time. When the whole body aches, it’s often due to an infection or disease, and happens as the body experiences inflammation and tries to heal. Identifying the reason why muscles are hurting helps determine the ideal treatment response.

What causes muscle pain?

Many things can cause muscle pain. In many cases, the pain can be resolved.

Tension or overuse

A lot of us get sore muscles at some point or other. Climbing a lot of stairs to help someone move or even trying a new workout class is sometimes enough to make muscles ache. Stress or overuse problems often arise from doing the same kinds of motions over and over without giving the muscles enough time to heal.

Charley horses or cramps

Muscles sometimes seize up or cramp, which is when they suddenly contract, causing uncomfortably tight sensations. They usually don’t last long (no more than 15 minutes), and resolve on their own. Sprains or mild injuries can also trigger them, as well as certain diseases. 

Dehydration

Moving around a lot in hot weather, neglecting to drink enough water or experiencing an electrolyte imbalance can make muscles ache. Muscle aches related to dehydration often show up in the back and legs. This happens partly because when the body runs low on water, it prioritizes the internal organs, diverting fluid from the rest of the body. Drinking enough water every day and keeping electrolytes stable is how to stave off dehydration.

DOMS 

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can happen 12 to 24 hours after doing unfamiliar exercises or sets of movements, and often shows up as calf muscle pain or thigh muscle pain. The soreness happens as the body repairs microscopic muscle tears; the worst of the aching usually sets in 24 to 72 hours after the exercise. While it definitely can feel uncomfortable, DOMS generally resolves on its own. DOMS happens to lots of different kinds of people, and doesn’t mean you’re out of shape. Over the counter painkillers like Tylenol or Aleve, staying hydrated and cold packs all help.

Myofascial pain syndrome

Doing the same kinds of motions over and over or being under a lot of stress can lead to developing tight, tender muscle “knots” called trigger points, which result in myofascial pain. That’s because muscles that tense up repeatedly can be damaged. This damage may feel like a deep ache in the muscle itself, or may be felt elsewhere in the body, in a phenomenon called referred pain. Myofascial pain is persistent and may lead to fibromyalgia. Massage, physical therapy and over the counter painkillers sometimes help.

Tendinitis 

The connective tissues between muscles and bones are called tendons. Repetitive motions, bad posture and, unfortunately, normal aging wears away at tendons, making it easier for them to tear or become inflamed, which is called tendinitis

Injuries

Injuries can affect muscles, too. Common injury types include: 

Athletic tears and strains

Athletic over-exertion or accidents can rip and tear muscles. Cramps, muscle weakness, swelling, inflammation and spasms can all indicate a strain, which is a stretch or tear in a muscle or tendon, often in the back or knees. Sports that involve abrupt movements have a higher risk of causing muscle strain.

Contusions

If a muscle and/or connective tissues get crushed in a fall or other impact injury, blood pools around the injury site, making it look discolored. A contusion doesn’t break the skin, but can cause a lot of localized soreness. 

Diseases and Infections

Muscle pain often accompanies various diseases and infections, particularly ones related to inflammation. A few of the most common ones are:

Lyme disease

While many types of infections can cause muscle aches due to the body’s immune responses, some infections are more severe and dangerous than others. Lyme disease, an illness carried by ticks, is one of them. When the body gets infected with Lyme disease after a tick bite, muscle aches are often one of the early signs (a stiff neck, fever and rashes are others.) If you notice muscle aches after walking through places ticks might inhabit, get medical attention, because antibiotics can prevent many Lyme disease symptoms if administered early enough.

Viral infections

Viral infections such as influenza (the flu) can make you feel bad all over, including in your muscles. A viral infection, including COVID-19, can provoke the body to mount a defensive campaign. When it does, white blood cells can produce signaling proteins, called cytokines, which help coordinate the body’s defenses. They can also inflame muscle tissues, which is why the body often feels stiff or sore during infectious illnesses. Even colds can cause muscle aches.

Autoimmune and neuromuscular disorders

Certain autoimmune and neuromuscular diseases and disorders, such as polymyositis, rheumatoid arthritis or muscular dystrophy, can impact the muscles as well as other body systems. Inflammation and muscle weakness often show up with these conditions. Muscle aches, especially in the shoulders, thighs and upper arms are also common with lupus. 

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (also called myalgic encephalomyelitis) can be extremely debilitating, and can involve muscle soreness. With CFS, many people struggle with a draining sense of exhaustion and inability to function as normal. 

Fibromyalgia

Widespread bodily pain and persistent muscle aches can characterize fibromyalgia. Fatigue and problems with mental concentration often accompany it as well. If your aches and pains last longer than three months, a doctor could help determine if fibromyalgia might be involved. 

A few other conditions can cause myalgia, including peripheral arterial disease (PAD), stress or tension, certain medications like statins and cancer drugs, and even depression.

What treats muscle pain?

For injuries that cause acute pain, RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) is a good place to start, especially following muscle strains and certain kinds of sports injuries. Acetaminophen-based painkillers may offer temporary relief. 

If the pain doesn’t respond or is chronic, seeking a diagnosis from a medical professional could be the next step. Massage therapists, physical therapists and acupuncturists might be able to help. 

With persistent muscle pain, a doctor may recommend MRI or CT scans, may conduct blood tests, may administer tests to gauge muscular function and may take tissue biopsies for further testing. 

Your doctor may recommend splints or other immobilization devices. She or he may also prescribe medications, depending on your diagnosis. In rare cases, you may need an operation. 

How can you prevent muscle pain?

While most of us experience muscle aches at some point, we can also take steps to prevent aches as much as possible: 

  • Stay hydrated, especially in warm or dry weather, and especially when you exercise. Try to drink water even before you feel consciously thirsty. Sports drinks can help keep your electrolytes balanced if you’re outside for a long time.
  • Active muscles are generally more supple, flexible, in-shape muscles. It helps keep your muscles ache-free if you regularly stretch and try to do thirty minutes of exercise three or more times a week. If you’re not there yet, start small and do what you can.
  • Remember to warm up before any exercise and cool down afterward. Those moments of stretching and gentle “waking up” of the muscles can prevent a lot of pain down the line.
  • Keep your surroundings as safe as possible. Try not to leave boxes, cords or other tripping hazards around, and be very careful on ladders. It only takes a second to trip and fall, but that fall can have long-term consequences for your joints and muscles. 
  • Nip pain in the bud. If you notice an ache start, rest that part of the body and use ice and heat appropriately. The sooner you address pain signals, rest your muscles and seek medical attention if necessary, the more likely your muscles will return to health quickly.

How Clearing can help with muscle pain 

Clearing specializes in reaching people where they’re at with chronic pain. Clearing’s customized plans can include personalized home exercises, prescription compound cream, nutraceuticals, CBD cream, health coaching and access to leading pain specialists, among other things. Learn more today.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.