It can be difficult to differentiate between bone and muscle pain, because they affect similar parts of the body. The pain may also be similar in intensity. However, in general, bone pain feels sharper, deeper, and more debilitating than muscle pain.

Bone pain may also last longer than muscle pain and require greater medical attention. In contrast, muscle pain feels more “generalized,” and its exact location is difficult to pinpoint.

People should visit a specialist if the pain is unbearable, or if it lasts longer than 48 hours. Doctors who specialize in the musculoskeletal system are called orthopedists or orthopedic surgeons.

Keep reading to learn more about the various causes of bone and muscle pain.

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The following are some potential causes of bone pain.

Osteoporosis, like the name suggests, is a disease of “porous bones.” It is more common in older adults, resulting from a deficiency of calcium and vitamin D. Other causes include hyperthyroidism, menopause, and a family history of osteoporosis.

However, it is important to note that osteoporosis is not painful until it causes a collapsed vertebrae, or a fracture.

Osteoporosis makes the bones thin, weak, and brittle. This increases the risk of bone injuries.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation say that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 will experience a broken bone because of osteoporosis.

Most people do not show symptoms, making osteoporosis a “silent disease.”

Watch out for early signs such as:

  • severe back pain
  • loss of height
  • a stooped or hunched posture
  • a bone injury caused by minor falls or bruising

Osteoporosis is treatable if a doctor diagnoses it early. Treatment includes medicines that slow down bone loss and support bone growth. This may be accompanied by nutritional supplements, exercise, and a balanced diet.

A bone injury can result in partial or complete breaking of the bone. This is called a fracture. Depending on the type and force of injury, bones may fracture in various ways — lengthwise, crosswise, or into two or more pieces.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the three most common causes of a fracture are:

  • trauma that results from a road accident, a hard fall, or a sports injury
  • osteoporosis
  • bone stress caused by muscle overuse (called a stress fracture)

Symptoms of a fracture include:

  • intense sharp pain at the site of injury
  • an inability to move the injured area
  • bruising
  • deformity (a limb that looks out of place or protrudes from the skin)

The doctor will do an X-ray to confirm if a bone is broken. Treatment for a fracture includes cast immobilization, where the injured site is wrapped with a plaster or fiberglass cast. This helps the bone heal, which could take several weeks. Some people may require invasive surgery to internally adjust the bone fragments.

Numerous types of cancer begin in the tissues or cells of the bone, or around the bone. Types of bone cancer include:

Bone cancer is rarely seen in adults. According to the American Cancer Society, osteosarcoma is more common in younger people between the ages of 10 and 30. Just over 10% of cases are seen in people in their 60s and 70s.

Some people develop bone cancer due to hereditary conditions. Other causes include previous cancer treatment with anticancer drugs, or radiation treatment, and Paget’s disease of bone.

Symptoms of bone cancers include:

  • pain that feels like a dull, deep ache in a bone or bone region (arms, legs, back, ribs, or pelvis)
  • swelling or inflammation, as if a mass or lump is present
  • sudden and unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue, especially as the cancer begins to spread

Surgery is the usual treatment of choice for bone cancer, where the doctor removes the entire tumor. Other types of bone cancer may require a combination of treatments that include chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapy.

Learn more about bone cancer here.

Muscle pain is more common than bone pain, but its cause may not always be clear. Also called myalgia, muscle aches and pains can involve the joints, ligaments, tendons, and the soft tissues that connect these with bones and organs.

Muscle injuries are common in athletes and people involved in high demand sports. Research shows that muscle injuries make up 10–55% of all acute sports injuries.

A muscle can be injured as a result of the impact from a fall, or from an external force such as a sports tackle, or road accident. Muscles can also get stretched — what most people call a muscle strain. The injury may be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the force of impact, and type of muscle injured.

Symptoms of a muscle injury include:

  • stinging pain at the site of injury, which may become duller with time
  • soreness
  • inflammation or swelling
  • redness
  • reduced movement of the affected area

A muscle injury is diagnosed by physical examination, and may require imaging tests such as an ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Treatment for muscle injuries involves heat or cold therapy to soothe the affected muscle, light stretches if the pain is tolerable, over-the-counter pain relievers, and rest.

Fibromyalgia is an increasingly common type of muscle pain that causes widespread intense pain across the body. It also affects a person’s sleeping habits, and is known to cause mental and emotional distress.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia affects over 4 million adults in the United States, which is about 2% of the adult population. Most people are diagnosed during middle age.

People with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are at higher risk of developing fibromyalgia. Other factors that increase a person’s risk are obesity, a family history of fibromyalgia, and certain viral infections.

Common symptoms include:

  • body pain that lasts more than 3 months
  • frequent fatigue and tiredness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sleep problems
  • headaches and migraines
  • tingling feeling in the hands or feet

Fibromyalgia is treated with a combination of prescription medicines and pain relievers, muscle strengthening exercises, and stress management activities such as yoga, massages, and meditation.

These are a group of diseases that cause long-term muscle inflammation, weakness, and pain. So far, researchers have identified four myopathies: polymyositis, dermatomyositis, inclusion body myositis, and necrotizing autoimmune myopathy.

Although their names may seem confusing, all the inflammatory myopathies are a kind of autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease occurs when a person’s immune cells (that are supposed to fight infections) begin to attack the body’s own tissues, muscle fibers, and blood vessels.

This leads to symptoms such as:

  • muscle weakness
  • fatigue or tiredness after standing or walking
  • muscles that feel tender to touch
  • muscle pain

There is currently no known cure for inflammatory myopathies, but some treatments may help to reduce symptoms. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommend physical therapy, exercise, medication, heat therapy, and rest, to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life.

Learn more about myalgia, or muscle aches, here.

It is best to consult a doctor if the pain lasts longer than 48 hours, or if it interferes with daily life.

Contact a doctor immediately if the pain is unbearable, if a limb looks odd or out of place, or if fever accompanies the pain.

Several short-term and chronic conditions can cause muscle pain and bone pain.

Many of these conditions can be treated with simple over-the-counter medicines, heat therapy, and rest.

However, some may require urgent medical attention. It is important to closely observe symptoms over a 24–48-hour period. If the pain persists, contact a doctor.