Muscle pain, also known as myalgia, is a common health ailment that most of us experience at some point. You may overdo the crunches at the gym and wake up the next day with a sore abdomen; twist a back muscle lifting boxes; or feel achy all over a day before the flu hits. Often you can provide muscle relief at home—but sometimes the pain is a signal that you need to seek medical attention. How do you know when you need to see a doctor for muscle pain?
Most muscle pain is relatively minor and temporary (also referred to as acute). This pain likely will last a few days or maybe a few weeks. In general, the most common causes for acute muscle pain are:
Stress and tension
Poor posture and form while exercising
Muscle pain due to these causes affects specific groups of muscles or areas of the body. For example, you may be so stressed that your neck muscles tighten, causing pain and stiffness. You may overuse a set of muscles, either through repetitive motions or a burst of activity, such as getting sore shoulders after intensive yard work. You might fall, causing muscle pain in your legs. Or you could lift too many heavy boxes and find yourself with muscle pain in your back due to strained muscles that have cramped or spasmed.
Another type of muscle pain is systemic—that is, it’s spread throughout your body, and may be felt in many muscle groups. Causes for this type of muscle pain include:
Illness or infection, such as the flu or Lyme disease
Chronic medical conditions, such as disorders that affect your immune system, like fibromyalgia (which causes tenderness in muscles) and lupus (a disorder of the connective tissue)
Side effects from certain medications, such as statins, which are used to lower cholesterol but can sometimes result in muscle pain.
Muscle Pain Treatment at Home
Most muscle pain is short-term and responds to at-home treatments. If you develop muscle pain but you’re still able to work and perform normal daily activities, you may want to try treating the pain yourself. For pulled or strained muscles, doctors recommend the RICE course of treatment:
Ice the affected area with an ice pack or bag of frozen peas, approximately 20 minutes at a time, several times per day, for 24 to 72 hours after an injury. (After that, you can use a heating pad if needed.)
Compression (wrapping a compression or elastic bandage wrap around the area can help cut swelling and pain)
Elevation, which involves raising the affected area, ideally above the level of your heart when lying down, to help cut swelling
You can also take non-prescription medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain. Pay attention to label warnings regarding total dosages so that you don’t take more than recommended, which can have side effects.
If you have muscle aches due to overuse or chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, you can also try massage and gentle stretching exercises. Other illnesses may similarly have treatments you can follow; your health provider can help advise you on what you can do at home to treat underlying conditions or disorders.
When to See a Doctor for Muscle Pain
Not all muscle pain is minor. Sometimes it can indicate a serious condition, meaning you need to see your doctor or other health professional. Some muscle pain can even be a sign of a critical problem, requiring you to seek emergency help.
Experts recommend that you call 911 or go to the hospital for immediate help if you have any of these symptoms in addition to your muscle pain:
Trouble breathing (shortness of breath)
Sudden weight gain, water retention, or reduced urination
Extreme muscle weakness or paralysis of any part of your body
The following symptoms are signs you could have an underlying condition that needs more than at-home care. Contact your health provider if you also had or have:
A tick bite
Signs of infection, such as redness and swelling around a sore muscle
Pain that starts after you begin or increase your dosage of medication, especially statin drugs
Muscle pain that happens when you exercise but goes away when you rest
Muscle pain that lasts longer than three days
Muscle pain that’s exceptionally severe, with no apparent reason for it
Who to See for Muscle Pain
Because muscle pain can be caused by many different things, the types of doctors who can treat it vary. Your first stop should be your primary care provider (a family practitioner or internist), who often can treat your pain or refer you to a specialist. Also, your insurance carrier may require you to get a referral before seeing a specialist.
Specialists who can treat muscle pain, depending on its cause, include:
Physiatrists, also known as a physical medicine or rehabilitation doctors
Orthopedic specialists, medical doctors (MDs) trained to treat musculoskeletal conditions, especially surgically
Neurologists, MDs trained in brain diseases and conditions, some of which can cause muscle pain
Osteopathic doctors, physicians with extra training in musculoskeletal treatment, who will have “DO” after their names instead of MD
Rheumatologists, MDs who often treat autoimmune or other systemic disorders
Pain medicine specialists, MDs who have expertise in pain management
Physical therapists, who will treat you following a referral from a medical doctor
Alternative medicine providers, such as chiropractors or acupuncturists, especially for back pain
It’s always important to pay attention to your body’s signals, and to treat symptoms like muscle pain. Often you can do this yourself at home, but sometimes you need to see your health provider. If you have any doubt about what your muscle pain means, consult your doctor.