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5 Causes of Body Aches

Know the most common causes of body aches and how to treat the symptom.
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Written by
Priyanka Gimbel, MD, MPH.
American Well (AmWell) - Telemedicine
Last updated September 8, 2021

Body aches questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your aches.

Body aches questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your aches.

Body aches symptom checker

Body aches are caused by pain or soreness in your muscles. The pain is often dull or achy, and can affect one muscle or your whole body. They’re thought to be caused by inflammation of a single muscle or multiple muscle groups.

Body aches are most often caused by overuse of muscles. But your body can ache if you have an infection like the flu. It can also be caused by certain medications, chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, or autoimmune disorders such as polymyalgia rheumatica.

Many causes of body aches are temporary and can be treated at home with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain medications. But if you have chronic pain, you may need prescription medications, physical therapy, or other treatments.

Causes

1. Muscle overuse

Symptoms

  • Dull, achy pain in muscle groups used during a workout or activity
  • Pain that worsens with movement or activity

Exercising at an intensity that you’re not used to can cause body aches in the muscle groups you used. For example, if you normally go on 2-mile runs but decide to run 5 miles one day, you may have sore legs the next day. If you have body aches but no fever, it’s likely that muscle overuse is to blame.

You can avoid muscle aches by gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts. Stretching before and after exercise and drinking plenty of water is also helpful.

You may need to rest or have reduced activity for 1 to 2 days. Use ice packs to reduce muscle swelling, and take over-the-counter pain medications if needed, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (tylenol).

2. Infections

Symptoms

  • Widespread body aches
  • Cough, sore throat, or runny nose
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Fever (100.4°F or greater)

Body aches are a common symptom of viral infections, such as influenza and COVID-19. But other types of infections can also cause whole body aches, including Lyme disease (a bacterial infection transmitted through tick bites) and malaria (caused by a parasite).

The muscle aches are caused by the inflammation that occurs when your body tries to fight off the infection. They usually go away when you no longer have an infection.

Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help relieve symptoms. If you have a bacterial or parasitic infection, you may need prescription medication. Viral infections often get better on their own over time and don’t require antibiotics.

Dr. Rx

It’s commonly believed that certain medications, like statins (cholesterol medications), have a high risk of causing body aches. This is actually not true! The risk of body aches with statins is actually quite low—it only affects 5% to 10% of people who take them. But even if you have body aches with one type of statin that does not mean you cannot take any type of statin. —Dr. Priyanka Gimbel

Body aches questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your aches.

Body aches symptom checker

3. Medications

Symptoms

  • Muscle cramping in one or multiple muscle groups
  • Less commonly, muscle weakness, swelling, or tenderness

Several types of medications can cause body aches. Two of the most common ones are statins (cholesterol-lowering medications) and steroids like prednisone. Others include hydroxychloroquine (used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), colchicine (used for gout), and certain HIV medications like zidovudine.

It’s not clear why these medications cause muscle aches. Some are thought to cause thinning of the muscle fibers, change electrolyte levels that are required for good muscle function, or alter muscle energy levels.

Medication can sometimes raise levels of certain muscle proteins in your blood, so your doctor may order blood tests to check for this.

The problem can be treated by lowering the dose of the medication or switching to another medication. It may take a few weeks for the body aches and other symptoms to go away after these treatment changes are made.

4. Fibromyalgia

Symptoms

  • Body aches in several parts of the body
  • Tender muscles
  • Fatigue
  • Depressed or anxious mood
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Cognitive problems, such as difficulty concentrating (referred to as “fibro fog”)

Body aches can be caused by a chronic illness called fibromyalgia. It’s thought that people with fibromyalgia are more sensitive to pain, but it’s not clear how this oversensitivity develops. People with fibromyalgia often have other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, psychiatric disorders, or rheumatoid arthritis.

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but people find some relief with a combination of therapies. These include over-the-counter pain relievers, certain antidepressants, physical and occupational therapy, good sleep hygiene, and exercise.

Pro Tip

Body aches can feel like sore, achy muscles. People describe it as feeling like a dull throb. You can have body aches in just one part of the body—for example, after doing a long run, your legs may ache. But you can have body aches in multiple muscle groups. For example, people with fibromyalgia may have aches in the upper and lower arms and the calves and feet. —Dr. Gimbel

5. Polymyalgia rheumatica

Symptoms

  • Muscle aches and stiffness that affect both sides of the body
  • Limited range of motion in the affected areas

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory disorder that causes muscle aches and stiffness, usually in the neck, shoulders, hips, and torso. Symptoms are worse in the morning. PMR often comes on suddenly and can affect your ability to perform everyday tasks. In some cases, it can also cause fatigue, a general sense of not feeling well, and low-grade fevers.

It’s not clear what causes PMR, though genetics and environmental triggers (like viruses) may play a role. The condition mostly affects people over age 50 and is more common in women than men.

Your doctor will likely perform blood tests to check for high levels of certain inflammatory markers. Treatment typically includes low-dose steroids. While people usually start to feel better within a week of starting medication, they must be taken for weeks or even months for PMR to go away.

Other possible causes

A number of conditions may also cause body aches, including:

  • Autoimmune conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Vitamin C or D deficiencies
  • Mental health conditions such as depression
  • Endocrine abnormalities like hypothyroidism or adrenal insufficiency
  • Temporary side effects of some vaccines

Body aches questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your aches.

Body aches symptom checker

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if:

  • Your body aches aren’t improving after a few days of home treatments.
  • You suspect or know that you’ve been bitten by a tick.
  • You have fatigue, joint aches, or rashes in addition to body aches.
  • You recently started a new medication.

Should I go to the ER for body aches?

Most conditions that cause body aches aren’t emergencies. But go to the ER if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms in addition to body aches:

  • Significant weakness that limits your ability to move, such as paralysis.
  • Problems breathing or swallowing
  • A high fever above 103°F or a fever of 100.4°F-103°F that isn’t coming down with fever medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others
  • Neck stiffness

Pro Tip

If you have body aches in addition to high fevers above 103F, profound weakness, problems breathing or swallowing, or neck stiffness—please get medical attention right away. This could be signs of a more serious medical condition and needs to be evaluated right away. —Dr. Gimbel

Treatments

At-home care

  • Resting and decreasing activity to allow the muscles to recover
  • Heating pads or warm baths to relax the muscles
  • Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce discomfort
  • Gentle stretching

Other treatment options

  • Prescription medications such as muscle relaxants or steroids
  • Physical therapy
  • Stopping certain medications (or switching medications) if you think they may be causing or worsening your body aches.
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American Well (AmWell) - Telemedicine
Dr. Gimbel is a board-certified Family Medicine physician and writer/reviewer for Buoy Health. She received her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience with a minor in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago (2008) and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and School of Public Health (2013). She completed a family medicine residency at the University of...
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