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What is Muscle Pain?

Myalgia [mahy-AL-juh] is muscle pain in general. Muscle pain is a symptom of many conditions and disorders, including:

  • Fibromyalgia (chronic pain and fatigue)
  • Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Infections
  • Drug-related reactions

A common cause of muscle pain is from overusing a group of muscles. Many people get muscle pain by overstretching or overusing muscles in the back.

Low back pain

If you have low back pain, you’re not alone. Acute low back pain (pain that lasts 8 weeks or less) is very common. In fact, it’s the second-most common reason that people visit their doctor.

More than 80% of people will have an episode of acute low back pain sometime in their lives. This includes episodes of sciatica [sy-AH-tik-uh]. Sciatica is a type of back and hip pain that happens when pressure is put on the sciatic nerve.


Muscle pain will appear in different ways depending on the exact cause. Some pain is sharp and difficult to live with, while other pain is more of a discomfort that you can manage with home treatments. Talk to your doctor about the specific kind of pain you are experiencing.

When to See a Doctor

See your doctor if you have:

  • Chronic muscle pain
  • Sudden, severe pain that doesn’t get better
  • Severe pain that gets worse instead of better with home treatment
  • Fever
  • Numbness or weakness

To treat your pain, your doctor will need to know what’s happening in your body. Knowing how you feel is the only way your healthcare providers can help you feel better.

If the pain can’t be controlled or it gets worse, it may be a sign of a complication that the doctor needs to know about. Consider keeping a pain diary to rate and describe your pain so you can share your symptoms with the doctor at your appointment.


Muscle pain is a very general term. It can be caused by many issues or disorders. In general, muscle pain is caused by:

  • Injury
  • Trauma
  • Chronic tension
  • Overuse

See your doctor to rule out any serious conditions and for recommendations for treatments to help relieve your pain. In some cases, muscle pain may be caused by certain disorders, infections, or drug-related reactions.

Diagnosis and Tests

There’s no magic cure for acute pain. In fact, your doctor may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause of your pain. However, your doctor can help you rule out any serious underlying condition.

In most cases, your doctor can rule out serious conditions from a medical history and physical exam alone. Typically, you DON’T need special lab tests, x-rays, or MRI tests — in fact, these tests usually don’t help. If your doctor does suspect a serious condition, they will refer you to an appropriate medical specialist.


Your doctor can recommend treatments to help control your pain and prevent disability. Based on the information gathered in your medical history and physical exam, your doctor may provide a range of treatments. The most common treatments include:

  • Education and activity recommendations. Your doctor will talk with you about avoiding bed rest, staying active, and practicing good body mechanics.
  • Medicines for pain relief. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription strength anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) or acetaminophen. For more severe cases, you might need to take a short course of muscle relaxers to reduce muscle tension and increase ability to move. Acute back pain rarely requires treatment with steroids or narcotics.
  • Referral to a physical therapist. A physical therapist can create and supervise an individual exercise program for increasing your flexibility and strength. Earlier treatment tends to produce better results than waiting. (If your insurance doesn’t cover physical therapy, ask your doctor for exercise recommendations.)

Not all pain episodes require a doctor’s visit. You can often manage your pain on your own and return to normal activities as soon as you’re ready. Try these suggestions:

  • Relax. Try to focus on breathing slowly and rhythmically. Try rubbing or massaging the painful area.
  • If you overused a muscle, keep moving. It’s natural to want to avoid using your back or other muscles when they hurt. However, for many types of pain, inactivity — especially bed rest — can slow the healing process and make your muscles weaker, tighter, and more painful. Although you do want to avoid activities that make your pain worse, stay as active as possible.
  • Find a comfortable position. When you do rest, you may have to experiment with positions to relieve your pain.
  • Apply heat or cold. Cold (an ice pack or bag of frozen peas) can lessen your pain, while heat (a hot water bottle, heating pad, or warm bath) can loosen tight muscles. Apply ice or heat for 15 minutes at a time each hour, alternating the two for best results.
  • Distract yourself. Listen to music, watch television, or visit with a friend.
  • Find spiritual or psychological support. Talk with a friend or counselor, or turn to your spiritual foundations.
  • Consider alternative therapies. Some people find relief through alternatives such as acupuncture or acupressure.
  • Try simple pain medicine. Control your pain with the over-the-counter medicines. Anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen (generic, Advil, Nuprin, or Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), relieve pain and also help reduce inflammation.

Pain medicine should control the pain enough that you can be active. If you take medicine for any other medical condition (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or arthritis), check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter pain reliever. Also, be sure to follow the directions on the packaging.


Doctors and researchers have discovered factors that can lower your chances of having problems with back and some other muscle pain. Here are some suggestions:

  • Practice good body mechanics. The term “body mechanics” refers to how you move and hold your body. Developing good habits is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from painful muscle overstrain episodes.
  • Get regular exercise. Regular activity keeps your body strong and flexible.
  • Establish and maintain a regular exercise program. This may include aerobic training (such as walking, swimming, or cycling) as well as stomach and back strengthening.
  • Manage your weight. Extra pounds put extra stress on your back and the rest of your body. To lose weight, eat more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat foods. Keep portions small, avoid junk food, and exercise regularly.
  • Avoid activities that require heavy lifting or trunk twisting, or that cause your body to vibrate. These activities can place lots of stress and strain on your back and other muscles. Avoid them when possible — and always use proper body mechanics.
  • Reduce stress. Stress has also been shown to affect muscle pain. Stress can cause muscular tension and sometimes spasms. Look at ways to reduce or manage the stress in your life.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. Studies show that smokers have twice as much back pain as non-smokers.