Musculoskeletal pain refers to pain in the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. You can feel this pain in just one area of the body, such as your back. You can also have it throughout your body if you have a widespread condition like fibromyalgia.

The pain can range from mild to severe enough to interfere with your day-to-day life. It may start suddenly and be short-lived, which is called acute pain. Pain that lasts for more than 3 to 6 months is called chronic pain.

Musculoskeletal disorders

These disorders directly affect the bones, muscles, joints, and ligaments. The most common cause of musculoskeletal pain is an injury to the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Falls, sports injuries, and car accidents are just a few of the incidents that can lead to pain.

More than 150 different musculoskeletal disorders exist. Some of the most common ones are:

Non-musculoskeletal contributors to pain

These are a few of the non-musculoskeletal disorders that cause pain in the bones, muscles, joints, and ligaments:

  • overuse at work or while playing sports
  • poor posture
  • prolonged bed rest, such as during an illness or after surgery
  • infections of the bones, muscles, or other soft tissues
  • certain tumors and cancers, including tenosynovial giant cell tumors (TGCTs) and metastatic prostate cancer spread to bone

Pain can sometimes feel like it’s originating in the musculoskeletal system, even when it’s from another organ system entirely. For example, a heart attack can cause pain that radiates down the arm. This is called referred pain, and it can stem from the:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • kidneys
  • gallbladder
  • spleen
  • pancreas

Low back pain is the most common type of musculoskeletal pain. But there are many other types with a range of potential causes.

Muscle pain (myalgia)

Myalgia is pain or aches in soft tissues that connect muscles, bones, and organs. Causes include injury, infection, cramp or spasm, loss of blood flow to the muscle, illness, some medications, or tumor. Many parts of the body can feel the effects, including ligaments, tendons, soft tissues, organs, and bones.

Bone pain

Trauma from a fracture or injury is a common cause of bone pain. It can also come from an infection, osteoporosis, tumor spread into a bone, or another systemic illness. Signs include tenderness or ache at the bone site.

Tendon and ligament pain

Tendon and ligament pain is often from a sprain, strain, or inflammation caused by tendinitis or tenosynovitis. Ligaments provide a connection between bones and tendons connect muscles to bone. Pain in these areas can arise from overuse or an unnatural or sudden movement that causes ligaments or tendons to stretch or tear.

Joint pain

Pain in the joints can occur along with swelling, stiffness, and limited range of motion. These are all symptoms of arthritis. People with arthritis sometimes develop chronic pain, which may present challenges in day-to-day living.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia causes pain in tendons, muscles, and joints throughout the body. This condition may start with localized pain in the neck and shoulders but become widespread. People with fibromyalgia often experience different kinds of pain in addition to musculoskeletal pain, such as migraine episodes.

Nerve compression pain

Nerve compression pain may occur from conditions that put pressure on nerves, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, and tarsal tunnel syndrome. Pressure can be the result of repetitive use, leaning on elbows, or other conditions like arthritis or gout.

Back pain

Back pain may have no specific cause, or it may be the result of injury or illness. Muscle strain, disc fracture, and inflammation may all result in back pain. It may also come from osteoarthritis or other degenerative conditions, infection, or spinal lesions.

Chest pain

Pain in your chest may come from angina, which is caused by the heart muscle not getting enough oxygen. Digestive issues like acid reflux, inflammation, blood clots in the lungs, and panic attacks might also result in chest pain. But these are unrelated to musculoskeletal pain.

Costochondritis, or inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage, is one example of musculoskeletal pain in the chest.

The quality of the pain can vary based on where it’s located.

Bone pain may be dull, sharp, stabbing, or deep. It’s typically more uncomfortable than muscle or tendon pain.

Muscle pain can be intense and short-lived if it’s caused by a cramp or powerful muscle contraction, commonly called a charley horse. The muscle may twitch or contract uncomfortably.

Tendon pain may feel sharp if an injury caused it. It usually worsens when you move or stretch the affected tendon and improves with rest.

Joint pain feels like an aching. It may be accompanied by stiffness and swelling.

Fibromyalgia causes multiple tender spots throughout the body.

Nerve compression pain may feel like tingling, pins and needles, or burning. Other symptoms depend on the cause of the pain, and can include:

  • stiffness
  • soreness
  • swelling
  • redness
  • cracking or popping sound in the joint
  • trouble moving the affected area
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping
  • muscle spasms or twitches
  • bruising

Because musculoskeletal pain can have a variety of causes, your doctor will first take a detailed medical history and ask about your symptoms. Expect to answer questions like these:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What were you doing at the time (for example, working out or playing sports)?
  • What does it feel like — stabbing, burning, aching, tingling?
  • Where does it hurt?
  • What other symptoms do you have (trouble sleeping, fatigue, etc.)?
  • What makes it worse or better?

Your doctor might press on or move the affected area into different positions to find the exact location of your pain. A number of tests can help pinpoint the cause of your pain, including:

  • blood tests to look for signs of inflammation that might suggest arthritis
  • X-rays or CT scans to find problems with the bones
  • MRI scans to find problems with soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons
  • joint fluid testing to look for infections or the crystals that cause gout

Primary care doctors most often treat musculoskeletal pain. Physical therapists, rheumatologists, osteopaths, orthopedic specialists, and other specialists may also be involved in your care.

The treatment you receive is based on what’s causing your pain. Treatment options are broken down into several types. Always speak with your doctor before starting any treatments.

Medications

Hands-on therapy

Complementary therapies

Aids and devices

Surgery

Surgery is typically reserved for cases that don’t improve with other treatments. Procedures may include:

For injuries or problems related to overuse, your doctor might recommend resting the affected body part until it heals. If you have arthritis or other muscle pain, doing some stretching and other exercises under the direction of a physical therapist may be helpful.

Ice and heat are both good options for soothing pain. Ice brings down swelling and relieves pain immediately after an injury. Heat alleviates stiffness a few days after the initial injury.

Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone about your pain. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you ways to manage your pain more effectively.

Musculoskeletal pain can have many sources, a few of which aren’t in the muscles, bones, and joints themselves. If you have pain that’s severe or that doesn’t improve in a few weeks, speak with your doctor for a checkup to find the cause.