Medical Conditions

Myalgia: what’s behind muscle pain

Written by

Anna Roell
3 August, 2023

Medically checked article All HOMED-IQ content is reviewed by medical specialists

Myalgia, or more simply put, muscle pain, is a condition that affects most people from time to time. Myalgia can be triggered by many different factors, such as muscle injuries, strains, spasms, and various muscular or other diseases. In this article we will go into detail about which muscles can be affected by myalgia, symptoms you may experience, potential causes, diagnosis options, and treatment methods.


Table of contents


All about muscles

Muscles are soft tissues that contract to move parts of the body. There are three main types of muscles: skeletal muscles, which are responsible for the voluntary movements of the skeleton; smooth muscles, which are found in the walls of internal organs and allow for movements that we cannot control ourselves, such as the movement of the intestines during digestion; and cardiac muscles, which are responsible for the powerful and rhythmic contractions of the heart. Although muscles are often associated only with movement and muscle contraction, they are also responsible for other important functions in the body, such as posture, joint stability, and heat production (NCI, 2023).

What muscles can be affected by myalgia?

Im Grunde kann jeder Muskel im menschlichen Körper betroffen sein. Dies hängt von verschiedenen Faktoren ab, wie z. B. der körperlichen Aktivität, der Körperhaltung, dem Gesundheitszustand und individuellen Gesundheitsfaktoren. Es gibt jedoch einige Muskeln und Muskelgruppen, die häufiger von Muskelschmerzen betroffen sind als andere. Dabei handelt es sich in erster Linie um die Muskeln, die wir im täglichen Leben am meisten beanspruchen. Dazu gehören Rücken-, Nacken-, Schulter- und Beinmuskeln (O’Connell, 2023).

What are the symptoms of myalgia?

The typical symptoms of myalgia can vary depending on the muscle group affected and the underlying cause. In general, muscle pain may be confined to a specific area or affect the whole body. They may occur suddenly and last for a short time (acute) or gradually and last for an extended period of time (chronic) and range from mild to very severe. Common symptoms include:

  1. Muscle stiffness: affected individuals may experience a limited range of motion or stiffness in the affected muscles.
  2. Muscle weakness: A general feeling of weakness or fatigue in the muscles may occur.
  3. Muscle swelling or redness: in some cases, visible swelling or redness of the skin over the affected muscle may appear.
  4. Cramps or muscle twitches: A sudden, unexpected tightening of the muscles can be abrupt and cause sudden, severe pain.
  5. Discomfort or pain with movement: Pain may worsen with certain movements or activities, such as sitting for an extended period of time, exercising, or walking.

Source: Cadman, 2018; Mayo Clinic, 2023

What are the causes of myalgia?

There are a variety of causes that can lead to muscle pain:

Injury or trauma: This is one of the most common causes of myalgia. It can result from a blow, a fall, a sprain, or any type of physical injury. In these cases, muscles, tendons or ligaments may tear or stretch, causing pain.

Strain and overuse: this is especially common in people who do intense physical activities or repetitive motions, such as athletes or people who do physically demanding work. The pain can also be aggravated by stress.

Muskelkrämpfe: Krämpfe sind unkontrollierbare und oft schmerzhafte Muskelkontraktionen. Sie können durch Dehydration, Mineralstoffmangel (häufig bei einem Magnesiummangel), Überanstrengung oder bestimmte Medikamente verursacht werden.

Muscle disorders: There are a number of medical conditions that can cause muscle pain, including:

  • Myositis: This rare disease is characterized by inflammation of the muscles, causing pain and weakness. Myositis can be caused by infections, medications, or autoimmune diseases (MedlinePlus, 2016).
  • Fibromyalgia: This chronic condition can cause widespread muscle pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but factors such as genetic predisposition, stress, and certain infections may play a role (NIAMS, 2021).
  • Polymyositis and dermatomyositis: In these autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the muscles, causing inflammation and pain. They can also cause difficulty swallowing as well as breathing problems (Mayo Clinic, 2022).

Other diseases that may cause myalgia:

  • Infections and viruses: Many bacterial and viral infections, such as influenza or Lyme disease, cause inflammation throughout the body that can also affect the muscles.
  • Autoimmune diseases: In autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body tissues, including muscles, causing inflammation, pain, and muscle weakness.
  • Metabolische und endokrine Störungen: Erkrankungen der Schilddrüse (Hypothyreose oder Hyperthyreose ) oder Diabetes können den Stoffwechsel und die Funktion der Muskeln beeinträchtigen. Bei der Hypothyreose produziert die Schilddrüse nicht genug und bei der Hyperthyreose zu viele Schilddrüsenhormone, was zu Schmerzen und Schwäche in den Muskeln führen kann. Bei Diabetes kann ein erhöhter Blutzuckerspiegel die Nerven schädigen (Neuropathie), was zu Schmerzen und Taubheitsgefühlen in den Muskeln führen kann.
  • Medications: some medications, especially statins (used to lower cholesterol), can cause muscle pain and weakness as a side effect.
  • Neurological disorders: Myalgia can also be caused by neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks the insulating layer of the nerves (myelin), which disrupts communication between the brain and muscles. In Parkinson’s disease, a lack of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter, causes muscle stiffness and pain.

Other causes: Other causes of muscle pain can include dehydration, poor posture, nerve injury and certain cancers.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2021

Since myalgia has a range of possible causes, you should speak to your doctor if you experience recurring or severe muscle pain in order get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

How is myalgia diagnosed?

Diagnosis of myalgia begins with discussing your medical history with a doctor, followed by a physical examination. The doctor will try to gather information about the type of pain, its location, onset, duration, and possible triggers. The physical examination may include checking muscle function, observing swelling or redness, and assessing pain sensitivity. Depending on the initial findings, the following tests and examinations may be used for further diagnosis:

  1. Blood tests: blood tests can help detect signs of inflammation in the body, rule out or confirm certain autoimmune diseases, and check thyroid function. Testing can also provide useful information about the body’s vitamin and mineral balance, as deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as vitamin D or magnesium, can also cause muscle pain.
  2. Imaging tests: X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to obtain detailed images of the muscles and the surrounding joints, bones, ligaments, and tissues.
  3. Electromyography (EMG): This test measures electrical activity in the muscles and can help diagnose neuromuscular disease.
  4. Muscle biopsy: In rare cases, a sample of muscle tissue may be taken for microscopic examination.

The type of diagnostic test used to investigate myalgia depends on the individual’s symptoms and medical history (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).

Get insight into your health from home

Magnesium plays a crucial role in muscle health and function, which is why a deficiency of this essential mineral can lead to symptoms such as muscle cramps, weakness or even pain. The Homed-IQ blood test for athletes allows you to check your magnesium levels from the comfort of your own home. You may also want to consider Homed-IQ’s vitamin deficiency test, as a lack of essential vitamins can cause muscle pain, fatigue and weakness.

How is myalgia treated?

Treatment for myalgia, or muscle pain, depends on the underlying cause. Your doctor will advise you on what strategies and treatments may work for you. The following are the most common measures used to relieve muscle pain:

  • Rest and recovery: For muscle pain caused by overexertion or minor injury, rest and recovery is often the best treatment. It may be helpful to rest the affected muscles for a day or two to allow the body to heal itself.
  • Painkillers: Well-known painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to relieve muscle pain. It is important to take these medications according to the instructions on the packet or as recommended by a doctor (Geng, 2022).
  • Heat and cold therapy: Heat can help to relax the muscles and relieve pain, while cold can reduce swelling and inflammation. A warm bath, an electric blanket or an ice pack can be helpful (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). 
  • Physiotherapy: Physiotherapy can help with chronic muscle pain or pain caused by injury or conditions such as fibromyalgia. A physical therapist can recommend exercises and techniques to improve muscle function, increase strength, and relieve pain.
  • Massage: Professional massage can relieve tension and ease pain in muscles. Self-massage with foam rollers can also be helpful.
  • Relaxation techniques: Techniques such as yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce stress and relieve muscle tension.
  • Exercise and stretching: regular exercise helps strengthen and stretch muscles, which can help prevent and relieve muscle pain.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2022

Summary

Muscle pain, also called myalgia, is a common condition that can range from mild, occasional discomfort to severe, chronic pain. It can be triggered by a variety of factors, including muscle overuse or injury, disease, infection, or certain medications. It is important that people with persistent or severe muscle pain see a doctor to identify the underlying cause and form an appropriate treatment plan.

References:

Biggers, A. (n.d.). Muscle Pain: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention. Healthline. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-aches#when-to-see-a-doctor

Carter, A., & Geng, C. (2022, July 22). What are some of the best medications for muscle pain? Medical News Today. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/best-medication-for-muscle-pain#over-the-counter

Here’s How to Choose Between Using Ice or Heat for Pain – Cleveland Clinic. (2020, December 8). Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/should-you-use-ice-or-heat-for-pain-infographic/

Introduction to the Muscular System. (n.d.). SEER Training. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://training.seer.cancer.gov/anatomy/muscular/

Muscle pain. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/muscle-pain/basics/definition/sym-20050866

Muscle Pain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention. (2021, February 11). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17669-muscle-pain

Myositis | Polymyositis | Dermatomyositis. (2016, April 17). MedlinePlus. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://medlineplus.gov/myositis.html

Polymyositis – Symptoms and causes. (2022, August 10). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/polymyositis/symptoms-causes/syc-20353208What is Fibromyalgia? – Symptoms & Treatment | NIAMS. (2021, June 1). National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/fibromyalgia

About the author

Anna Roell

Anna is a trained nurse and health economist specializing in epidemiology, combining her medical and scientific interests. Her goal is to improve others' understanding of medical information and to communicate it in an understandable way. Anna is originally from Germany and now lives in Amsterdam. What she appreciates most about Amsterdam is the open-minded, active attitude of the people, the markets, and the beautiful nature in the areas surrounding Amsterdam.