Musculoskeletal Pain

What is musculoskeletal pain?

Musculoskeletal pain affects the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. It can be acute (having a rapid onset with severe symptoms) or chronic (long-lasting). Musculoskeletal pain can be localized in one area, or widespread.

Lower back pain is the most common type of musculoskeletal pain. Other common types include tendonitis, myalgia (muscle pain), and stress fractures.

What are the causes of musculoskeletal pain?

Anyone can experience musculoskeletal pain. It is most often caused by an injury to the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or nerves. This can be caused by jerking movements, car accidents, falls, fractures, sprains, dislocations, and direct blows to the muscle.

Musculoskeletal pain can also be caused by overuse. Pain from overuse affects 33% of adults. Lower back pain from overuse is the most common work-related diagnosis in Western society.

Poor posture or prolonged immobilization can also cause musculoskeletal pain.

What are the symptoms of musculoskeletal pain?

Symptoms of musculoskeletal pain depend on whether the pain is caused by an injury or overuse and whether it is chronic or acute. The symptoms can also differ from person to person.

Common symptoms include:

  • Localized or widespread pain that can worsen with movement.
  • Aching or stiffness of the entire body.
  • The feeling that your muscles have been pulled or overworked
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Twitching muscles
  • The sensation of “burning” in your muscles

If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor for a thorough examination.

What are the different types of musculoskeletal pain?

Musculoskeletal pain has varying symptoms and causes. Some of the more common types of pain include:

  • Bone pain: This is usually deep, penetrating, or dull. It most commonly results from injury. It is important to be sure that the pain is not related to a fracture or tumor.
  • Muscle pain: This is often less intense than bone pain, but it can still be debilitating. Muscle pain can be caused by an injury, an autoimmune reaction, loss of blood flow to the muscle, infection, or a tumor. The pain can also include muscle spasms and cramps.
  • Tendon and ligament pain: Pains in the tendons or ligaments are often caused by injuries, including sprains. This type of musculoskeletal pain often becomes worse when the affected area is stretched or moved.
  • Fibromyalgia: This is a condition that may cause pain in the muscles, tendons, or ligaments. The pain is usually in multiple locations and can be difficult to describe. Fibromyalgia is usually accompanied by other symptoms.
  • Joint pain: Joint injuries and diseases usually produce a stiff, aching, “arthritic” pain. The pain may range from mild to severe and worsens when moving the joint. The joints may also swell. Joint inflammation (arthritis) is a common cause of pain.
  • “Tunnel” syndromes: This refers to musculoskeletal disorders that cause pain due to nerve compression. The disorders include carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, and tarsal tunnel syndrome. The pain tends to spread along the path supplied by the nerve and may feel like burning. These disorders are often caused by overuse.

How is musculoskeletal pain diagnosed?

Your doctor will begin by conducting a thorough medical history. He or she will be looking for possible causes of your pain, such as workplace or sports injuries, and will also ask if the pain is ongoing or acute.

The doctor will then conduct a hands-on examination looking for the source of the pain. This may include palpating the affected area. This helps him or her locate the origin of the pain. However, to determine the underlying cause of the pain, the doctor will often follow the exam with laboratory tests and X-rays.

These may include:

  • Blood tests to confirm a diagnosis, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • X-rays to take images of the bones
  • CT scans to get an even more detailed look at the bones
  • MRIs to look at soft tissues such as muscles, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons

Based on the findings from your examination and the results of these tests, your doctor should be able to diagnose the cause and type of your pain. This will help him or her to create a treatment plan for you.

How is musculoskeletal pain treated?

Musculoskeletal pain is best treated by treating its cause. This will vary depending on whether you are experiencing bone, muscle, ligament, tendon, or joint pain, or some other kind of musculoskeletal pain.

Treatments include:

  • Physical or occupational therapy
  • Using a splint to immobilize the affected joint and allow healing
  • Using heat or cold
  • Reducing workload and increasing rest
  • Reducing stress through relaxation and biofeedback techniques
  • Acupuncture or acupressure
  • Injections with anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medications in or around the painful sites
  • Strengthening and conditioning exercises
  • Stretching exercises
  • Chiropractic care
  • Therapeutic massage

For patients with fibromyalgia, medications to increase the body’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine (neurotransmitters that modulate sleep, pain, and immune system function) are often prescribed in low doses.

Pain relievers may be used during treatment for any type of musculoskeletal pain. Your doctor may recommend analgesics such as acetaminophen, NSAIDS, or, if pain is severe, opioids.

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