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Musculoskeletal pain

Causes of musculoskeletal pain

How often have you had aching muscles after a tough workout or maybe a nagging discomfort in your lower back? Musculoskeletal pain is one of the most common types of pain, and is a very typical reason for doctor visits.

Pain that affects the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves are all considered musculoskeletal pain. It can be widespread (where your whole body aches) or localized in just one body part. Many people experience acute musculoskeletal pain after an injury, like from car accidents, falls, sprains, dislocations and direct blows to the muscle. (Understand more about pain)

Musculoskeletal pain can also be chronic or persistent (Learn about different types of pain). In fact, one of the most common types of musculoskeletal pain is low back pain. Overuse (for instance, in work-related injuries or repetitive stress), poor posture or prolonged immobilization can also lead to chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Associated symptoms

Musculoskeletal pain can be described as aching or rigid, it can worsen with movement, and it can feel as though the muscles are being pulled or overworked. The sensation itself can be pricking, burning, twitching, sharp, etc. Symptoms can differ greatly from person to person.

Musculoskeletal pain may be associated with other disturbing symptoms. For instance, people with musculoskeletal pain may also feel fatigued or can experience sleep disturbances.

Kinds of musculoskeletal pain

There are several conditions that can cause musculoskeletal pain. Here are a few:

  • Arthritis. The term ‘arthritis’ refers to inflammation of one or more joints. Because of inflammation, arthritis is often accompanied by pain in the extremities. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common joint disorder, and it develops from wear and tear on a joint, like from aging. Most people with OA are older, but young people can also develop this kind of arthritis after injury or repetitive stress. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), another common kind of arthritis, is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body’s immune system abnormally attacks healthy tissue. RA leads to inflammation in joints, surrounding tissues and even other organs. Gout also causes inflammation and pain in joints – frequently in a big toe – caused by too much uric acid in the blood.
  • Muscle pain. Muscle pain can range from a simple ache, spasm or strain, to severe spasticity (stiffness or rigidity) that accompanies paralysis. Muscle pain can be caused by an injury, an autoimmune reaction, loss of blood flow to the muscle, infection or a tumor.
  • Fibromyalgia. This is a condition that may cause widespread, long-lasting pain in the muscles, tendons or ligaments. The pain is usually in multiple locations and can be difficult to describe. Fibromyalgia is usually accompanied by other symptoms, like fatigue, sleep disorders and depression.
  • Back pain. Back pain, which ranges from neck pain to low back pain, is one of the most common complaints in adults and is often related to lifestyle or occupation. Back pain can be caused by sore muscles and tendons, herniated discs (the padding between the bones in the spine), and fractures. Shooting or burning back pain that spreads to the back of the leg is called sciatica. Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebra extends over another, causing pressure on nerves and leading to pain. Radiculopathy is damage to nerve roots near the vertebrae that can be extremely painful.
  • Repetitive strain injury. When a person has to perform repeated motions in the course of normal work or other daily activities, he or she is at risk for a muscular condition called repetitive strain injury. Examples include writer’s cramp, carpal tunnel syndrome (from prolonged overextension of the wrist, like when typing) or tendonitis (inflammation of tendons).

Treatment of musculoskeletal pain

Musculoskeletal pain can often become chronic, affecting a person’s life and productivity. Treatment is not always straightforward, and often a comprehensive approach is needed to address both physical and psychosocial aspects of the pain. People with longstanding pain can feel depressed or anxious about their condition, so their physical pain has effects on their general well-being and mood.

The treatment for musculoskeletal pain varies depending on the cause of the pain – from bone, muscle, ligament, tendon or joints, or some other syndrome.

Pain relievers (analgesics) may be used during treatment of musculoskeletal pain. Analgesics such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like aspirin or ibuprofen) are used for mild pain, and, if pain is moderate to severe, opioids or other stronger medications may be preferred.

In addition to medication, other ways to help relieve musculoskeletal pain include:

  • Heat or cold therapy
  • Splints to immobilize affected joints
  • Injections with anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medications in or around the painful sites
  • Exercise
  • Physical or occupational therapy
  • Reduction of workload and increased rest
  • Relaxation and biofeedback (training a person to control bodily functions that are normally automatic or involuntary)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a kind of self-management that uses strategies of thinking and behavior to reduce pain
  • Complementary and alternative medicine, like acupuncture or acupressure, chiropractic care or massage therapy
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