Muscle pain and muscle aches are part of life and can happen to just about everyone. Whether they’re from tension, stress, a sports injury or a medical condition, everyday living can sometimes be a literal pain in the neck — and exacerbate related bodily aches, too. These aches usually affect the support structures that allow movement in daily life: the bones, the muscles, the ligaments and the tendons.
Musculoskeletal pain can stem from various factors, including poor posture, repetitive motions, injury, overuse, and typical wear and tear. The whole body might ache, or there could be pain in a specific spot from a twisted ankle or a pulled muscle. If the pain is strong enough, it may even disrupt sleep and lead to fatigue. Luckily, there are many ways to treat musculoskeletal pain. Learn how to ease the discomfort with these methods.
1. Physical therapy and massage
Physical therapists help alleviate symptoms through manual therapy and exercise, and also try to find why the pain began in the first place, says Hiroki Yokoyama, a physical therapist at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California.
“Once the pain has improved, they can help provide ways to make sure that the pain does not return and, if it does, teach you how to manage it before it gets out of hand,” he says. “In general, with conditions such as acute muscle pain, you can relieve the pain with simple techniques such as massage to increase blood flow.”
2. Low-impact exercise,
stretching and strength training
If muscles aren’t strong or limber enough, it’s possible to become more prone to musculoskeletal pain. Strength training — such as lifting weights, using weight machines at a gym and using resistance bands — can better prepare muscles to deal with aches, pains and strain. It can also help provide support to the joints and prevent injuries. In addition, stretching and low-impact exercises such as walking, yoga and swimming can help keep muscles long and flexible, and release muscle soreness and tension.
“Specific exercises to strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight muscles not only help the body heal, they also prevent issues in the future,” says Alicia Armitstead, a chiropractor and founder of Healing Arts NYC, which specializes in chiropractic and nutrition response testing. “The stronger the body is, the less likely musculoskeletal pain will occur; and if it does, it is expected to heal faster.”
3. Eat a healthy diet
Diet can also play a role with musculoskeletal pain, Yokoyama says, because certain foods are known to contribute to increased inflammation in the body.
“I have witnessed cases where decreasing blood glucose levels alleviated a person’s frozen shoulder, or cutting meat and dairy from a diet decreased a person’s chronic thumb pain significantly,” he says.
Armitstead adds that the most inflammatory foods are alcohol, refined sugar (cakes, candy, ice cream, etc.) and coffee.
“To see if the diet is playing a role in your pain, stop eating those three things for at least three days and see if your pain lessens,” she says.
Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, better known as NSAIDs, can also be used to treat inflammation or muscle pain and musculoskeletal disorders such as fibromyalgia.
But Dr. Richard Yoon, an orthopedic surgeon and director of orthopedic research at the Orthopedic Institute at Jersey City Medical Center, says to be cautious about quick medical fixes for muscle pains.
“Americans, in particular, tend to look for quick health fixes, which is why there is a large market for supplements,” Yoon says. “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that they actually work. Injections and anti-inflammatory medications can temporarily relieve pain, but my philosophy with my patients is to get to the root of the problem.”
5. Acupuncture or acupressure
Some experts have touted the benefits of acupuncture and acupressure to relieve musculoskeletal pain. Harvard Medical School has noted that “acupuncture is worth a try for chronic pain,” while the Cleveland Clinic has reported that “it is very effective in treating several diseases and conditions. Acupuncture is most effective at treating chronic (long-term) pain, such as headaches, menstrual cramps, and low back, neck or muscle pain.”
Surgery can also be effective for muscle pain when other types of treatments fail, according to Yokoyama.
“Many people can get rid of their musculoskeletal pain completely with rest and rehab,” he says. “However, when the symptoms are severe, such as loss of muscle function or constant burning or numbness of a limb, surgery may be necessary. I had a fully torn rotator cuff in my shoulder surgically repaired around 15 years ago from a gymnastics injury that impaired my ability to lift my arm over chest height. To this day, I have perfect function of my shoulder and don’t have any pain.”
Yoon says shoulder, hip and knee replacements can certainly change lives for the better but only after everything else has been tried.
“Every patient is different, and sometimes X-rays and symptoms tell a different story,” he says. “It comes down to a collaborative decision with their doctor based on their goals and their quality of life. For patients who do opt for surgery, the next step is to optimize their lifestyle to ensure that they can derive the maximum benefit from the surgery and minimize complications.”