Almost everyone experiences an occasional twinge of muscle or joint pain after a strenuous day of gardening, an unusually vigorous tennis match, or some similar strain on the musculoskeletal system. Many systemic illnesses, particularly the flu, produce minor muscle and joint aches. Joint pain may also be a symptom of infection. In some cases, however, it signals a chronic, severe illness such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease that affects more than one organ system.
Causes of joint or muscle pain
There are more than 100 different kinds of arthritis, a term that literally means inflammation of a joint. If you are over 50 years of age and suffer from occasional joint pain with no accompanying symptoms, you may have osteoarthritis. Joint pain and inflammation in conjunction with a generalized sense of illness and a low-grade fever may indicate rheumatoid arthritis. Similar symptoms in a child may be due to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. If the pain is centered in your back, you may have ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that affects the spine. Muscle and joint pain in a young woman may be symptoms of lupus, particularly if skin abnormalities occur as well. In men, joint pain accompanied by a penile discharge may indicate Reiter's syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
If the joints and muscles in your wrists are painful, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition often develops in people whose jobs involve repetitive hand and wrist motions.
If you have joint pain, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea that sometimes alternates with constipation, you might be suffering from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory disease in which sharply demarcated areas in the intestinal lining become swollen and develop ulcers. The disease is chronic, but periods of remission often occur between symptom flare-ups.
Gout is a type of arthritis that causes a distinctive, stabbing joint pain, usually in the big toe.
Back and shoulder muscles are especially vulnerable to strains and sports injuries.
The arthritis is caused by deposits of uric acid crystals in the joint.
Joint and muscle pain may be the result of viral or bacterial infections originating elsewhere in the body. A bad cold or a case of the flu can cause generalized muscle aches. In more serious cases, a bacterial infection may spread through the bloodstream to penetrate joints and other parts of the body. The organisms that cause gonorrhea, for example, may spread to the joints and cause arthritis, as may streptococcal bacteria (which cause strep throat) or tubercle bacilli, which cause tuberculosis.
If you live in a heavily wooded area and get bitten by a tick, you may develop Lyme disease, an infection caused by spiral-shaped bacteria and transmitted to humans by tiny deer ticks. Lyme disease has a wide array of manifestations, including a round, red rash that often occurs soon after the tick bite. Arthritis, which usually affects only one knee or another single joint, develops several months (or even longer) after the original bite.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a major cause of swollen, painful finger joints.
Scaling skin on the elbows, knees, or scalp, accompanied by pain and swelling in several joints, may be an indication of psoriasis, a chronic condition that primarily affects the skin but also may involve the musculoskeletal system.
An inflamed, swollen joint following a sore throat is a common manifestation of rheumatic fever. The arthritis of rheumatic fever usually attacks a knee, but it may also settle in an elbow, wrist, or other joints. The major damage of rheumatic fever, however, is damage to the heart valves.
Sprains and strains
Minor muscle and joint injuries are usually the result of overuse, particularly in a person who is generally sedentary. To keep such injuries from causing troublesome, chronic symptoms, immediate first aid — which should include resting the injured joint and applying ice — is necessary.
Advice about joint or muscle pain
- If you think your muscle and joint pains are caused by the flu, you should rest in bed, take acetaminophen or aspirin, and drink plenty of fluids. If you don't start feeling better within a few days, call your doctor.
- If you have joint or muscle pain as a result of overuse or injury, you can treat the condition with RICE: Rest; Ice applications (10 minutes of every hour for the first day); Compression; and Elevation of the injured part. If you don't feel better within 48 hours or if you are unable to use the injured joint normally, call your doctor.
- If you have a fever or any other signs of illness in combination with joint or muscle pain, call your doctor immediately.
- If you have intermittent
bouts of joint or muscle
pain, keep a diary to try to establish a pattern of when the symptom occurs (morning versus afternoon, for example), its severity, and whether any other symptoms occur with it. If the pain persists, call your doctor for an appointment and take your diary with you. Some types of arthritis can be difficult to diagnose; your record of symptoms may provide important clues.