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What are muscle aches?
Muscle aches (myalgia) are extremely common. Almost everyone has experienced discomfort in their muscles at some point.
Because there’s muscle tissue in nearly all parts of the body, this type of pain can be felt practically anywhere. However, there’s no single cause for muscle aches and pains.
While overuse or injury is common, there are other possible explanations for ongoing discomfort.
Often, people who experience muscle aches can easily pinpoint the cause. This is because most instances of myalgia result from too much stress, tension, or physical activity. Some common causes include:
- muscle tension in one or more areas of the body
- overusing the muscle during physical activity
- injuring the muscle while engaging in physically demanding work or exercise
- skipping warmups and cool downs
Not all muscle aches are related to stress, tension, and physical activity. Some medical explanations for myalgia include:
- fibromyalgia, especially if aches and pains last longer than 3 months
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- myofascial pain syndrome, which causes inflammation in muscular connective tissues called fascia
- infections, such as the flu, polio, or bacterial infections
- autoimmune disorders such as lupus, dermatomyositis, and polymyositis
- use of certain medications or drugs, such as statins, ACE inhibitors, or cocaine
- thyroid problems, such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism
- hypokalemia (low potassium)
Muscle aches often respond well to home treatment. Some measures you can take to relieve muscle discomfort from injuries and overuse include:
- resting the area of the body where you’re experiencing aches and pains
- taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil)
- applying ice to the affected area to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation
You should use ice for 1 to 3 days following a strain or sprain, and apply heat for any pain that remains after 3 days.
Other measures that may provide relief from muscle pain include:
- gently stretching the muscles
- avoiding high-impact activities until after the muscle pain goes away
- avoiding weight lifting sessions until the muscle pain is resolved
- giving yourself time to rest
- doing stress-relieving activities and exercises such as yoga and meditation to relieve tension
Shop for remedies
Muscle aches aren’t always harmless, and in some instances, home treatment isn’t enough to address the underlying cause. Myalgia can also be a sign that something is seriously wrong in your body.
You should see your doctor for:
- pain that doesn’t go away after a few days of home treatment
- severe muscle pain that arises without a clear cause
- muscle pain that occurs along with a rash
- muscle pain that occurs after a tick bite
- myalgia accompanied by redness or swelling
- pain that occurs soon after a medication change
- pain that occurs with an elevated temperature
The following can be a sign of a medical emergency. Get to the hospital as soon as possible if you experience any of the following along with aching muscles:
- a sudden onset of water retention or a reduction in urine volume
- difficulty swallowing
- vomiting or running a fever
- trouble catching your breath
- stiffness in your neck area
- muscles that are weak
- an inability to move the affected area of the body
If your muscle pain is caused by tension or physical activity, take these measures to lower your risk of developing muscle pain in the future:
- Stretch your muscles before engaging in physical activity and after workouts.
- Incorporate a warmup and a cooldown into all of your exercise sessions, around 5 minutes each.
- Stay hydrated, especially on days when you’re active.
- Engage in regular exercise to help promote optimal muscle tone.
- Get up and stretch regularly if you work at a desk or in an environment that puts you at risk for muscle strain or tension.
Occasional muscle aches and pains are normal, especially if you’re active or are new to exercise.
Listen to your body and stop doing an activity if your muscles start hurting. Ease into new activities to avoid muscle injuries.
Your sore muscles might be due to something other than tension and physical activity. In this case, your doctor will be the best person to advise you on how to fully resolve your muscle pain. The first priority will be to treat the primary condition.
As a rule of thumb, you should see your doctor if your muscle pain doesn’t resolve after a few days’ worth of homecare and rest.