Understanding muscle pain

Muscle aches and pains are very common and can affect more than one muscle leaving you feeling miserable and sore. Since the muscles in your body are connected, it’s not unusual to feel pain in several areas like your neck, back, legs and hands at the same time.

Patient showing muscle pain

What are the symptoms of muscle pain?

  • Muscle cramps,
  • Muscle spasms and aches
  • Tenderness in your muscles
  • Tiredness or sleep difficulties
  • Headaches
  • Inability to use the muscle

What are the causes of muscle pain?

Muscle pain is often caused by one of the following:

  • Injury or trauma – this includes sprains and strains
  • Overuse – using our muscle too much, or too often
  • Tension
  • Stress
  • Medical conditions – including: lupus, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease
  • Flu

When should I see my doctor?

Doctor showing a patient something

Contact you doctor if you notice any one of the following:

  • You have muscle pain that lasts over 3 days
  • You feel severe, unexplained pain
  • You see any sign of an infection, like swelling or redness around the muscle
  • You feel poor circulation in the place where your muscles ache
  • You have a tick bite or a rash
  • Your muscle pain has happened at the same time as you’ve started or changed doses of a medicine

Seek medical attention immediately if you notice:

  • You’re experiencing sudden weight gain, water retention, or you’re urinating less than usual
  • You feel short of breath or have difficulty swallowing
  • You have muscle weakness or can’t move any part of your body
  • You are vomiting, have a very stiff neck, or high fever

What are the treatments available for muscle pain?

Before treatment

Certain muscle pain is easier to diagnose than other muscle pain. For example, you can usually tell if you just pulled a muscle if you feel sudden intense pain. Sometimes muscle pain that lasts a long time may make it more difficult to diagnose, especially if it’s the all over aches and pains type that can leave you exhausted. Before treating you, your doctor may ask some of these questions:

  • When did the muscle pain or muscle cramps start?
  • Where exactly is the pain – do you feel it all over or just in one specific area?
  • Do you have any other symptoms at the same time like joint pain, fever, vomiting, weakness, malaise, or any difficulty using the muscle that hurts?
  • Is there a pattern to your muscle aches?
  • Are you on any new medications?
  • Have you had surgery recently?

Once you’re diagnosed

Depending on the level or cause of your muscle pain, your doctor may recommend different treatments you can do at home. These can include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – these include topical NSAIDs such as diclofenac gel as well as the ones you take by mouth such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Heating pads or cold packs
  • Massage
  • Physiotherapy

Lifestyle tips for muscle pain

It’s important to listen to your body. Sometimes, muscle pain can be your body’s way of telling you to relax. Practicing breathing exercises can increase blood flow to your muscles that can release tension that may be causing you to have muscle pain. Here are several tips that can be really helpful:

  • Try meditation - learn how to relax your muscles
  • Start exercising – walk, cycle, swim, do yoga
  • Stay hydrated and drink lots of fluids before, during and after exercise – electrolyte imbalance can cause muscle pain
  • Stretch once an hour - especially if you work at a computer or sit most of the day
  • Get enough sleep – If you have trouble sleeping avoid caffeine drinks in the afternoon

Always consult with your physician before starting a new exercise regimen or routine.


If you find you often have muscle pain in your lower back or in your neck you may find information in the Back Pain and Neck Pain sections helpful.