Muscle pain is a general term that applies to achiness, soreness, and pain of a muscle or muscle group that may range from mild to severe and that may last from a few days to many months. The technical name for muscle pain is myalgia. The term myositis is used to describe inflammation of muscle tissue specifically.
The most common type of muscle pain is localized, affecting a single muscle or muscle group. Systemic muscle pain appears to affect all or most of the muscles in a person's body. Systemic muscle pain is usually caused by factors other than trauma or overuse, often by an infection such as fibromyalgia or the use of certain types of drugs, such as statins. For example, the achiness that one often associates with an attack of influenza is not caused by stress on the muscles, but by the infectious agent that causes the flu. In contrast with localized muscle pain, which often resolves relatively easily on its own, systemic muscle pain may be an indication of a more serious medical problem and should prompt a visit to a medical professional.
Statistics on the incidence and demographics of muscle pain worldwide are not generally available. The best source of such information on American residents comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Some of the demographic patterns reported in the most recent version (2009) of that survey include:
Among the infections and other medical conditions that may cause systemic muscle pain are the following:
Diagnosing muscle pain begins with a patient medical history that allows a medical professional to determine whether the condition is likely to be a localized or systemic issue. If the patient reports a recent injury to the body area in question or a history of repetitive use for that area, a localized pain issue may be indicated. The medical professional will also ask about other symptoms that may be present in association with the muscle pain, such as chills, fever, sweats, weight loss, or nausea, indicating that more serious underlying problems may be involved. Questions regarding neurological symptoms, such as tingling, numbness, vision problems, or ringing in the ears may also help determine the precise nature of the pain problem.
A general physical examination may be indicated. In the examination, the medical professional will palpate the body, looking for tender or sore points that may be associated with the pain, and may determine the patient's general muscle tone. Abnormalities in a patient's gait, obvious changes in muscle size, swelling and redness of joints, and coordination problems may be indications of underlying issues related to pain. Finally, blood tests and a variety of imaging tests can be used to further narrow down the range of diseases and disorders that may be responsible for systemic pain symptoms.
These tests may include x-rays; computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging, and bone scans; and muscle biopsies.
Most cases of localized muscle pain resolve fairly easily with simple home treatment that involves the following elements:
Home treatment may be inadequate in dealing with muscle pain, or the conditions associated with the pain may indicate the need for professional medical care. A person should seek immediate care as soon as muscle pain occurs if there is:
Other symptoms that may suggest the need for a visit to a health professional, although not on an emergency basis, include:
Because muscle pain has a variety of possible causes, prognosis differs considerably from case to case. Localized muscle pain caused by stress or trauma generally resolves on its own or with simple home treatment in a matter of days. Muscle pain that results from an infection disappears when the underlying infection is itself cured. Muscle pain associated with other causes, such as rhabdomyolysis goes away only when the condition is cured. The corollary to this fact is that pain associated with certain types of diseases and disorders are a part of those conditions and remain as long as the condition itself remains.
To the extent that muscle pain is associated with some other underlying condition, such as an infectious disease or reaction to a medication, the pain itself can only be prevented by avoiding the underlying condition, a situation that is often beyond control of an individual. The risk of localized muscle pain caused by stress or trauma, such as that encountered during exercise or sporting activities, can often be reduced by simple steps. Stretching exercises prior to an exercise or athletic event, warming up in other ways before the event and cooling down after the event, and drinking plenty of fluids while participating in the event or the exercise all help to minimize pain from exercise. People who live more sedentary lives, such as those who sit at a desk all day long, can reduce the risk of muscle pains simply by standing and moving about on a regular basis and, where possible, performing some simple stretching exercises.
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American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD