Muscle pain is an extremely common symptom and in most cases, it’s not a cause of concern. After all, you may have just overworked or pulled a muscle. But in some cases, muscle weakness may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, such as hormonal issues, infections, or even Lyme disease. When should you start being concerned about muscle pain, and what conditions could it be a symptom of?
When to worry about muscle pain
Muscle pain can be our body’s natural response to higher than usual physical activity. To be more specific, our muscles produce a chemical called lactic acid when they get more exercise than they’re used to, which is why your muscles may feel sore for a day or two after a hiking trip or even a spring cleaning session.
Lactic acid dissipates from the muscles about an hour after it was produced, but the muscle aches may continue for a few days. If the pain worsens with time or persists for over two weeks, however, it’s a red flag. In addition, you should be generally capable of pinpointing the cause of the muscle pain, be it more exercise than usual, lifting heavy objects, or just sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
You should be suspicious if the pain starts suddenly and for no apparent cause. Lastly, try to define the quality of the pain. If the pain is stabbing, sharp, or feels like electricity as opposed to an aching dull pain, it’s most likely not a muscle spasm and should be examined by your doctor.
Below we list 9 dangerous conditions that could be causing persistent muscle pain:
Are you someone who loves working out and tend to overdo it a bit with the intensity? Well, it turns out that intense workouts have a dark side, too - a condition called rhabdomyolysis. When you overwork your muscles, the muscle tissues may enter stress mode and start breaking down, releases a protein called myoglobin (the oxygen-storing protein in the muscles) that gets absorbed into the bloodstream and starts wreaking havoc throughout the body, possibly even causing kidney damage.
People suffering from rhabdomyolysis experience strong frequent muscle pain, especially in the back, thighs, shoulders, and calves. Additional symptoms of the condition include muscle weakness and dark urine. Apart from strenuous exercise, blood clots, heatstroke, substance abuse, and electrolyte imbalances may also cause rhabdomyolysis. The condition is a medical emergency and should be treated in a hospital.
2. Thyroid issues and other hormonal imbalances
Both an underactive and an overactive thyroid may lead a person to develop muscle cramps, as does Addison's disease, a condition where the adrenal gland cannot produce sufficient quantities of its hormones. These conditions come with a variety of symptoms ranging from behavioral changes and irritability to dry skin and hair loss to sudden weight gain or weight loss. For more information on the symptoms of thyroid issues, read our article titled 8 Common Thyroid Dysfunctions and What Causes Them.
3. Lyme disease
This tick-borne disease is often quite difficult to pinpoint and diagnose, as the characteristic bulls-eye rash in the place where one was bitten by a black-legged tick doesn’t always appear. If you have been in nature, especially in forested areas, and know that black-legged ticks are common in that area, a stiff neck and muscle pains accompanied by fatigue and fever may point to Lyme disease. For more information on this dangerous condition, its symptoms, treatment, and prevention, check out our previous article - A Guide to Lyme Disease.
Most of us associate arthritis with painful and stiff joints, but it turns out that rheumatoid arthritis can also cause muscle pain and spasms. Since muscles and joints are interconnected, inflammation and pain in the joints may affect the muscles, too.
As Dr. Kannankeril pointed out to Reader’s Digest, “When there’s pain in an area, muscles will automatically contract as a protective measure.” So, a painful knee may also get worse due to muscle spasms and the pain that comes with it. Massaging and applying cold or warm compresses on the area can help relieve the spasm and may bring some degree of relief to the aching muscles.
5. Flu and other viruses
When our body detects a virus, be it the flu or any other respiratory virus, it starts releasing compounds called cytokines to alert the immune system of the intruders. These inflammatory proteins, though beneficial, also have the side effect of breaking down muscle tissues, which results in muscle aches, fatigue, chills, a fever, and sweating.
Apart from acute systemic bacterial or viral infections like Lyme disease, the flu, and the like, parasitic infections like roundworm (trichinosis) or toxoplasmosis can likewise manifest themselves through muscle aches. There’s even a rare bacterial infection called pyomyositis that leads to the formation of pus-containing abscesses in the muscle itself.
It usually causes cramping muscle pain in only one area of the body like your thigh or glute and makes the entire affected area tender and swollen. All of these medical conditions require professional medical attention or even pus drainage, like in the case of pyomyositis, so make sure to never ignore persistent muscle pain that comes with other symptoms of infection like fever, chills, redness, and swelling.
It should also be pointed out that certain medications may also cause muscle pains as a side effect. The most common drugs to do so are statins, which, as you may know, are used to lower cholesterol levels. In most cases, this side effect doesn’t appear during the first half a year after starting the medication.
Suddenly discontinuing the use of antidepressants may also lead to muscle pains, but it usually resolves within a few weeks. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing muscle pain when taking any medication, they will suggest alternatives or adjust your dosage to minimize the negative side effects.
You wouldn’t think that a mental health issue like depression could manifest itself through physical signs like muscle aches. In reality, though, muscle and joint pain are quite common symptoms of depression, and sometimes, it’s the only reason why people go to the doctor and how they end up being diagnosed with depression.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition the causes of which are still unknown, but scientists today have begun to understand that there is both a biological and psychological aspect to it. The condition is more common in women than it is in men, and it can manifest itself very differently.
Most patients suffering from fibromyalgia have specific tender points around the different joints in the body that are painful to the touch. The pain is very specific and can be described as sore, stiff, burning, aching, or throbbing. Some patients also experience tingling and numbness in different parts of the body.
Other biological and psychological symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
Fatigue and trouble falling asleep
Depression and anxiety
Brain fog and difficulty concentrating.
As you can see, there is a great number of conditions that could manifest themselves through muscle aches. If you’re experiencing persistent muscle pain not related to physical activity or poor sleep posture, and the symptoms don’t go away or get worse after a week or more, we highly recommend you talk to a medical professional.
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