Musculoskeletal pain affects the muscles, bones, joints, and surrounding tissue. It can be mild or intense and may occur because of an injury, medical condition, or illness.

Musculoskeletal pain can become chronic pain, which can be more challenging to diagnose and manage than sudden, acute pain.

A person can experience musculoskeletal pain in virtually any area of their body and may confuse this form of pain with other types. For example, pain in the chest muscles may cause someone to worry they are having a heart attack. Other types of pain can also trigger musculoskeletal pain, such as when a toothache causes jaw tension and discomfort.

Musculoskeletal pain is very common, with low back pain alone affecting 30–40% of adults.

This article describes what musculoskeletal pain is, why it occurs, and the different types. It also explains when to contact a doctor and how to prevent this kind of pain from occurring.

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Musculoskeletal pain affects the skeleton, the muscles, and the tissues and structures that support them.

It may be a sudden, intense sensation, such as when a person experiences an injury such as a sprain or strain. It may also develop slowly over time and can become chronic.

Some examples of musculoskeletal pain include:

  • the sudden pain of a broken bone
  • joint pain from conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • muscle pain from a fall or injury
  • widespread pain from sitting in an uncomfortable position or having a sedentary lifestyle
  • chronic muscle pain, which may affect only one area or various areas
  • soreness after exercise
  • bone pain from avascular necrosis, osteonecrosis, or a fracture

The symptoms of musculoskeletal pain vary significantly from person to person. Pain from the same source can change over time, even in the same person.

Pain may:

  • usually occur in a specific area, though it can radiate to other areas
  • be mild, moderate, or intense
  • occur suddenly, as with a broken bone
  • last for a long time or change or worsen with time
  • get worse in certain positions, when a person is sedentary, or when they are more active

Diagnosing the type of pain or the cause may not be possible based on symptoms alone.

The location of the pain and how it feels may provide some insight, though. Joint pain may be from arthritis, while pins and needles sensations often signal nerve pain.

A person will need to contact a doctor if:

  • they have an injury they think may be severe, such as after a fall, car accident, or assault
  • pain is very intense and sudden
  • pain lasts longer than a few days or gets steadily worse
  • chronic pain worsens or feels unbearable
  • they can only move when using a cane, walker, or wheelchair
  • they also have other symptoms, such as:

Doctors have many different formulas for classifying musculoskeletal pain.

For example, they might look at whether the pain affects the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, or joints. A doctor will also consider the type of pain a person is experiencing.

The main types of pain include:

  • Nociceptive: This is pain from injuries, such as:
  • Neuropathic: This refers to pain from a nerve being stretched or compressed. Diabetes is a common cause of neuropathic pain since it can damage the nerves. People often report experiencing electrical sensations or “pins and needles.”
  • Idiopathic: This is pain with no clear origin. Having idiopathic pain does not mean that the pain is not real, but rather that doctors cannot identify a specific cause.
  • Nociplastic: This occurs when a person’s perception of pain changes, usually due to a nerve injury or other neurological problem. Central sensitization, one type of nociplastic pain, causes the brain to overreact to harmless stimulation, causing feelings of pain.
  • Mixed: This is pain with multiple causes. For example, a person might have neuropathic pain that makes an injury hurt more.

Learn more about pain.

A myriad of issues can cause musculoskeletal pain.

Some of the most common causes include:

  • new injuries such as from a car wreck or fall
  • old injuries which did not heal fully
  • inflammatory conditions such as arthritis
  • psychogenic pain, which is pain that gets worse because of emotional distress
  • nerve damage or disease
  • chronic or progressive illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS)

Risk factors for various types of musculoskeletal pain vary greatly, but some common ones include:

  • engaging in activities that increase the risk of injuries, such as contact sports
  • having conditions that increase the risk of nerve damage, such as diabetes
  • a family history of certain illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • vitamin and nutritional deficiencies
  • delayed onset muscle soreness, which occurs when people feel pain in muscles after exercise

Diagnosing musculoskeletal pain begins with assessing the person’s medical history.

If a person has had a recent injury, a doctor may focus on the potentially injured area. If the cause of the pain is unclear, though, a doctor may ask about the following:

  • family history
  • other symptoms
  • when symptoms tend to appear and what triggers them
  • the specific areas of the body experiencing pain

Based on this discussion, a doctor may refer the person to a specialist or continue focusing on a specific area of the body. This may involve:

  • examining the affected area
  • doing tests to assess things such as mobility and muscle strength
  • performing imaging scans, such as X-ray or MRI scans
  • taking blood tests to check for inflammatory markers or signs of underlying disease
  • asking the person to keep a symptom log

Numerous treatments can help manage musculoskeletal pain.

The treatment a doctor may recommend will depend on the underlying cause. Some options include:

  • treating a broken bone with surgery or a cast
  • medication to manage pain, usually beginning with nonaddictive medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) before adding opioids or other medications as necessary
  • medication to treat underlying diseases, such as biologic medications for arthritis
  • physical therapy to help regain functioning and reduce pain
  • psychotherapy to help a person learn to live with pain and manage the mental health effects it can cause

Musculoskeletal pain is very common.

A person’s outlook will depend on:

  • the location of the pain
  • the type of pain
  • their diagnosis

People can consult their doctor about their outlook. If a doctor can identify the cause and best treatment for pain, outcomes can be good.

It is not always possible to prevent musculoskeletal pain, especially when it occurs due to an underlying disease.

However, the following strategies may reduce the risk:

  • wearing a seatbelt in the car
  • wearing protective equipment to help prevent injuries during sports
  • managing chronic health conditions such as diabetes to reduce the risk of serious complications
  • seeking early treatment for unexplained pain to help keep it from getting worse

Musculoskeletal pain is common and can happen for many reasons or even no apparent reason. Chronic pain can be challenging to diagnose and treat, while acute pain can be sudden and intensely painful.

A doctor can help identify the cause of pain and may refer a person to a pain specialist, rheumatologist, or other expert. Depending on the reason for the pain, recovery can be possible with the proper support.