While you probably know whether a bad cold or that new barre class spurred your aching joints or muscles, you might be wondering how totally different things can provoke similar types of pain.
The answer, usually, is through inflammation.
“There’s a process of inflammation that occurs when the body has an infection, and some of the inflammatory mediators that we use to fight the infection cause fever and body aches,” says Erich Voigt, MD, an otolaryngologist at NYU Langone Health.
But a slew of other behaviors and conditions can amp up your body’s inflammatory responses—like repetitive motion and stress—triggering body aches in the process, he notes. So, why exactly do different parts of your body throb and twinge? Beyond getting older, here is a closer look at the most common reasons for your body aches, why your body responds with pain in the first place, and how to find relief.
Cold and flu season is in full swing
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“The body aches related to an infection such as pharyngitis (sore throat) or flu are related to the immune system’s response to the infection,” says Stephen Parodi, MD, infectious disease expert at Kaiser Permanente. “Our body releases certain chemicals, including ones called interferons, which help fight off the infection, but also cause body aches.” What’s more, your immune system is channeling most of your body’s energy into fighting off the infection, causing you to feel super tired.
✖️Ease the aches: Take it slow and get some rest. Dr. Parodi suggests over-the-counter medications for pain relief, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, especially if you have the flu.
“Flu tends to make people sicker than regular cold viruses, and the body aches and fevers can be higher with flu. That’s why it is so important to get vaccinated and prevent the infection altogether,” he says.
You might have mononucleosis
Typically caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), mono is a type of infection common among teenagers and young adults, usually transmitted through saliva. The symptoms of mono include extreme fatigue, sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. And because it’s infectious, like pharyngitis and flu, your immune system will have a similar inflammatory response, resulting in body aches.
✖️Ease the aches: Getting some rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking some OTC meds for fever and pain should help you find relief, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There’s no specific treatment plan for mono, since antibiotics can’t zap viral infections. You should still touch base with your doc to get an official diagnosis, who will be able to provide prescription meds if another infection occurs at the same time, like strep.
You went too hard during your workout
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Trying a new type of exercise (or even just working a muscle group you’ve ignored for a while) can make you feel sore post-sweat. That muscle soreness, specifically the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you feel a day or two after a hard workout, is the result of small tears in your tissues, according to a study published in Clinics in Sports Medicine. This results in inflammation, which causes that can’t-sit-down-properly feeling in your legs after you’ve done one too many squats.
✖️Ease the aches: It’s nothing to be worried about; DOMS is indicative of your muscles adapting to a new activity so they can do it again. Your muscles will heal within a few days, but doing a few foam-roller exercises during your recovery period can help speed the process up. If you like a deeper pressure, try a firm foam roller like this one from Amazon. If you rather go with gentle relief, try a softer one like this one from OPTP.
You’re using one part of your body over and over
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When you repeatedly use just one part of your body—whether while working out or typing at work—a more focused body ache and concentrated pain can take the form of a repetitive motion injury. A common example? Carpal tunnel syndrome.
Doing the same motion repeatedly can cause muscles, ligaments, and tendons to become swollen and inflamed, which causes the ache. In addition to aches, you may notice a lack of strength and reduced range of motion in the affected area.
✖️Ease the aches: Strengthening exercises through physical therapy, wearing braces to keep the area stable, and occupational therapy may be needed to get the body part functioning normally again.
You feel too stressed
Psychological stress can have physical manifestations, from headaches to jaw pain to lower back pain. That’s because when you’re stressed, your body pumps out the hormone cortisol. While that’s not a problem in the short-term, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association concludes that chronic stress can amp up inflammation, causing muscle breakdown, pain, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Plus, your body becomes more susceptible to infection when you can’t chill out.
✖️Ease the aches: Take some time each day to do something that helps you unwind from your daily stressors. Just breathing deeply for a few minutes (or even meditating), taking a walk during your lunch break, or a hot bath after work can help rejuvenate your body and mind.
You’re not sleeping soundly
You know you need sleep to keep feeling alert, but you might not realize just how much your body really depends on it to remain ache-free. In a study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, researchers found the number one predictor of widespread pain, especially among adults over 50, is non-restorative sleep, or disruptive sleep (typically characterized by having trouble falling asleep or insomnia, waking in the middle of the night, or feeling excessively tired throughout the day).
✖️Ease the aches: Your musculoskeletal system needs at least 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night to repair itself daily. Can’t seem to snooze soundly? These 100 ways to sleep better every night are a good place to start.
A tick infected you with Lyme disease
Yep, something as tiny as a tick can be responsible for your body aches. Blacklegged ticks infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, to be exact. If you catch it early enough, muscle and joint aches won’t become severe, but they are early indicators of Lyme disease. Other signs of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and a bullseye-shaped rash. Diagnosis mainly takes two things into consideration: the presence of these symptoms and the possibility of your exposure to ticks. About 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC annually, but researchers estimate the true number of cases each year in the US is closer to 329,000.
✖️Ease the aches: If you suspect you have Lyme, seek medical treatment ASAP. The symptoms will only become more severe over time and can lead to complications like heart problems and severe joint pain. If you test positive for Lyme, your doc will prescribe antibiotics to rid your body of the infection.
You might have arthritis
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You don’t have to be old to have arthritis, which encompasses more than 100 different conditions. Inflammatory arthritis—which includes rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis—affects your entire body since they’re autoimmune diseases, meaning your immune system goes a bit haywire and attacks healthy cells, spurring inflammation in the process. It’s characterized by pain and stiffness after periods of inactivity, or by morning stiffness that lasts over an hour. You may also notice pain, swelling, and tenderness around your joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
✖️Ease the aches: First, you should touch base with your doc to pin down which specific disease could be wreaking havoc on your joints. Your treatment will be depend on the diagnosis, but it’s likely your doc will recommend lifestyle changes (both physical and emotional—say, tweaking your diet or suggesting stress management tips). Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, along with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs may also be recommended to relieve pain and prevent further damage to your body.
You could be dealing with fibromyalgia
Widely misunderstood but fairly common, fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain in your bones, muscles, or ligaments—which affects about 10 million Americans, according to the National Fibromyalgia Association. Your brain processes pain signals abnormally, heightening your body’s experience of pain. That pain, which can develop over time or be triggered by something like surgery or infection, varies in intensity and will migrate all over the body. Most people with fibromyalgia (the bulk of whom are women) also experience chronic fatigue.
✖️Ease the aches: If a blood test confirms that you’re suffering from fibromyalgia, you’ll work with your doctor to tailor a treatment plan to your lifestyle. Medications like over-the-counter pain relievers, antidepressants (to help you relax and sleep) and anti-seizure drugs (also to ease pain) may be your first course of action, according to the Mayo Clinic. From there, physical or occupational therapy may be needed, as well as counseling if you struggle with stress.
Your body might be fighting lupus
Lupus is tricky to diagnose, but most people with this autoimmune disease experience achy joints and swelling. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates at least 1.5 million people are living with lupus in the United States. Symptoms may come and go, and can affect different organs in different people. A few other major signs to look out for include extreme fatigue, headaches, fever, a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose, hair loss, and Raynaud’s phenomenon (a condition in which your fingers, and sometimes your toes, feel severely cold or even change color). While lupus pain typically occurs on both sides of the body at once, it tends to be more manageable than something like rheumatoid arthritis.
✖️Ease the aches: Depending on your body’s specific reaction to the disease, your doctor may recommend a variety of medications to help you manage your symptoms, including NSAIDs (to treat pain and swelling), antimalarial drugs (to reduce flare ups), corticosteroids (to fight inflammation), immunosuppressants (to keep your immune system under control in very severe cases), or biologics (to treat various symptoms).