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Muscle Pain Overview
Almost everyone has sore, aching muscles now and then. Muscle pain (myalgia) can range from mild to excruciating. Though it often goes away in a few days, sometimes muscle pain can linger for months. Muscle pain can develop almost anywhere in your body, including your neck, back, legs and even your hands.
What Are the Most Common Causes of Muscle Pain?
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 (muscle sprains and strains are both injuries that can cause muscle aches and pain)
What’s Causing My Sore Muscles?
It’s normal to have sore muscles after you work out, play sports, or even do housework, especially if:
- You did something you’re not used to, like running a marathon when you normally jog just a few miles.
- You suddenly kicked up your exercise intensity level or increased the length of your workout.
- You did unusual exercises that lengthen instead of shorten your muscle, like walking downhill or extending your arm during a bicep curl.
These changes to your exercise routine can lead to tiny injuries in your muscle fibers and connective tissue. About a day later, you’ll start to feel sore.
“We call that ‘delayed onset’ muscle soreness,” says Ethel Frese, PT, associate professor of physical therapy at St. Louis University. “It peaks within about 48 hours, and then it will gradually get better.”
The good news is that when you do the same activity again, your muscles will start to get used to it. “You will actually have no soreness or less soreness because now you’ve strengthened the muscle or connective tissue,” says Allan H. Goldfarb, PhD. He’s a professor and exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Managing Muscle Pain at Home
Muscle aches often respond well to home treatment. Some measures you can take to ease any muscle discomfort from injuries and overuse include:
- resting the area of the body where you are experiencing aches and pains
- taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen
- applying ice to the affected area to help relieve pain and ease inflammation
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you should use ice for one to three days following the strain or sprain. Apply heat for any pain that remains after three days (NIH, 2011).
Other measures that may provide relief from muscle pain due to a variety of causes 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
Treating Muscles Pain and Joint Pain
One big question a lot of people have when they’re nursing sore muscles is whether to use heat or ice. Experts say indirect ice an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel is best for immediate relief.
“Heat will feel good while it’s on, but it’s not going to lessen the damage or make it go away anytime soon,” Frese says.
Goldfarb suggests you ice the sore area right after the activity to cut inflammation. Then use heat later to increase blood flow to the area. Heat also can help relieve joint pain.
If you get sore muscles once in a while, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve)to help ease the discomfort. Just be cautious about using NSAIDs regularly. Long-term use can interfere with your muscle’s ability to repair itself, Goldfarb says.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist about any interactions these over-the-counter drugs may have with other medications you take. Also, you may need to avoid some medications if you have ulcers, kidney disease, liver disease, or other conditions.
Sometimes soothing sore muscles requires more than an ice pack or over-the-counter pain reliever. Muscle pain that comes on quickly and feels intense is a sign that you’ve injured yourself. Call your doctor if your pain is severe or lasts for more than a few days.