Muscle aches and pains can have numerous causes—so many, in fact, it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly where your muscle aches are coming from. Learn the common causes of muscle aches and pains, additional less-likely causes, and when to stop home treatment and make an appointment with a doctor.
Common Causes of Muscle Aches & Pains
Typically, muscle aches will appear grouped in one area of the body and happen due to one of four common causes: minor injury, overuse injury, stress, or tension.i Let’s explore each of these groupings.
Many parts of day-to-day life can lead to muscle aches and pains—as well as weakness, bruising, swelling, or cramping associated with minor muscle injury:ii
- Bad posture. Slouching, putting more weight on one side of the body than the other, and unnatural muscle positions can cause muscle aches and pains.
- Blunt force trauma. Strong impacts to the body like a hit or fall.
- Poor warmup or cooldown. Being physically active without a five-minute stretching warmup and cooldown.
- Repetitive motion injury. Similar to overuse injury, this comes from making the same motion over and over—whether that’s during an exercise routine that doesn’t change or over the course of a workday.
- Strains, pulls, or tears. Moving or falling that leads to overstretching a muscle.
Additionally, muscle injuries that lead to aches and pains may also contribute toward compartment syndrome or myofascial pain syndrome (MPS).ii
While typically the domain of athletes, overuse injury is caused by repeated traumas to muscle groups and can be broken down into two types:iii
- Training error aches. Going too hard too fast for too long can lead to muscle aches from overtraining. These injuries are common in impact sports such as football and boxing and endurance sports such as soccer and track.ii
- Technique error aches. Using poor form while exercising or playing sports can also lead to overuse injury—making proper form just as important as training correctly. Muscle injury and aches are especially common when poor form is used during weightlifting and other activities that require explosive muscle movements.ii
Stress & Tension
Stress and tension go hand-in-hand when it comes to causing muscle aches and pains. Whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional stress, it can trigger muscle tension—or tightness and rigidity—as a protective reflex.ii Tension in muscles due to stress can cause back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and other muscle aches and pains throughout the body.iv
Aside from muscle tension, other physical symptoms of stress include:v
- Chest pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Upset stomach
As stress abates, so should the muscle tension and associated muscle aches and pain.ii Look into technique that help with minimizing and addressing psychological triggers.
Other Muscle Ache Causes
Muscle pain—or myalgia, as it’s sometimes called in medical settingsvi—can have many other causes other than the most common muscle ache causes listed above:vi,vii
- Dehydration, nutrient deficit, and/or electrolyte loss
- Diseases, including arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, dermatomyositis, fibromyalgia, lupus, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), polymyalgia rheumatica, and polymyositis
- Infections, such as the flu, mononucleosis, and pneumonia
- Lack of sleep
- Some medications—prescription or over-the-counter—and drugs
Treating Muscle Aches at Home
Most muscle aches and pains will go away on their own with home treatment, including:vii
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Advil®
- Relaxation activities, such as meditation and yoga
- The R.I.C.E. method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation
- Stretching the affected muscle groups
When to See a Doctor for Muscle Aches & Pains
If your muscle aches and pains don’t resolve, it may be time to consider seeing a doctor to ensure that your muscle aches aren’t the result of an underlying condition. Consult with your doctor if your muscle aches come with any of the following:vii
- See evidence of a bug bite
- Signs of infection like swelling or redness
- Think that the muscle pain may be linked to a prescribed medication
See immediate medical attention if any of the following are experienced with your muscle aches:vii
- Inability to move achy muscles
- Muscle weakness
- Neck stiffness combined with a high fever
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Water retention or lack of urine elimination
For more resources for managing muscle aches and pains, check out our Resources Center for additional articles and information.
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i Muscle pain: Causes. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/muscle-pain/basics/causes/sym-20050866. Accessed 18 July 2020.
ii Muscle Pain: Possible Causes. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17669-muscle-pain/possible-causes. Accessed 18 July 2020.
iii Overuse injury: How to prevent training injuries. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/overuse-injury/art-20045875. Accessed 18 July 2020.
iv 50 Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress. The American Institute of Stress. https://www.stress.org/stress-effects#:~:text=Your%20muscles%20tense%20up%20to,shoulder%20pain%2C%20and%20body%20aches. . Accessed 18 July 2020.
v Stress management. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987. Accessed 18 July 2020.
vi Muscle aches. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003178.htm. Accessed 18 July 2020.
vii What are the causes of unexplained muscle aches? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322869. Accessed 18 July 2020.