Musculoskeletal Pain – Cause, Symptoms, & Treatment


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Dr Sukanya Goswami
Sukanya has done BDS. She is a dentist, a blogger, an extrovert, and a travel enthusiast. She is also a spiritual believer. When she is not working, you can find her reading books.

Musculoskeletal pain, as the name suggests, is a type of pain that occurs in the muscles, bones, tendons, ligament, and nerves. Typically, this type of pain can be felt around the back, joints, and neck. Some of the medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia, are closely associated with musculoskeletal pain. Usually, a person with musculoskeletal pain may experience the symptoms suddenly in the form of acute discomfort. Acute musculoskeletal pain is short-lived. However, chronic musculoskeletal pain may last for more than three to six months.

Some of the causes of musculoskeletal pain include arthritis, osteoporosis, fractures, and muscle loss. Diagnosis is usually made by taking a detailed history, x-ray, and CT scans. Treatment of musculoskeletal pain depends on the type of cause. It may vary from medicinal therapy to therapeutic massage, alternate therapies like acupuncture, and surgical intervention.

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Today’s article will highlight the symptoms and causes of musculoskeletal pain. Furthermore, we will discuss the treatment of musculoskeletal pain.

What causes musculoskeletal pain?

Musculoskeletal pain mainly affects the muscles, bones, joints, and ligaments of the body. It is most commonly associated with medical conditions that affect the muscles of the body, such as fibromyalgia. One of the most common causes of musculoskeletal pain is a sudden injury to the bones, joints, and muscles of the body through sports, car accident, accidental fall, or just an incident that leads to twisting of the bones and muscles. (1)

Some of the common causes of musculoskeletal pain include –

  • Osteoporosis
  • Fractures of the bone and joint dislocations
  • Loss of muscle
  • Arthritis
  • Scoliosis
  • Poor posture
  • Prolonged bed rest
  • Infections of the bones and muscles
  • Nerve compression from tumors of the bones and tendons
  • Fibromyalgia

What are the symptoms of musculoskeletal pain?

As the name suggests, pain in the muscles, bone, tendons, and ligaments is one of the prime features of musculoskeletal pain. Often, the quality of pain may vary based on the type of location. Some of the characteristic features of musculoskeletal pain are listed below –

  • Bone pain is felt as a dull, sharp, stabbing, or deep pain. Bone pain usually causes more discomfort as compared to the pain of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Muscle pain is more common than other types of pain in this condition. Muscle pain is often intense and short-lived. It is mainly caused by a cramp or forceful contraction of a muscle, usually termed as ‘Charley horse.’ During this condition, the tissue may twitch or contract uncomfortably. (2)
  • Tendon pain is a sharp shooting pain caused by sudden injury of the tendon. This type of pain usually worsens when a particular part of the body is stretched. The pain subsides on rest.
  • Joint pain is felt as a dull aching pain accompanied by stiffness and swelling of the joints.
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People with fibromyalgia experience musculoskeletal pain as multiple tender spots throughout the body. On the other hand, pain caused by nerve compression may be felt as a tingling, needle-like, or burning pain. Some other symptoms of musculoskeletal pain may include –

  • Soreness
  • Stiffness and swelling
  • Redness of the affected area
  • Cracking or popping sound of the joints (3)
  • Discomfort
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Bruising
  • Muscle spasm and twitch

How is musculoskeletal pain diagnosed?

The diagnosis of musculoskeletal pain is usually started by taking a detailed medical history of the patient. Additionally, the patient is asked a series of questions to describe the characteristics, frequency, and location of the pain. (4)

Physical examination includes pressing or moving the affected part of the body to find the exact location of the pain. Moreover, a series of tests may be performed to understand the cause and identify the type of musculoskeletal pain. Some of these tests include –

  • A blood test to check inflammation that might suggest arthritis
  • X-rays and CT scans
  • MRI for soft tissue problems
  • Fluid test of the joints to check for infection

What is the treatment for musculoskeletal pain?

Treatment of musculoskeletal pain usually depends on the type of underlying cause. A team of physical therapists, rheumatologists, osteopaths, and orthopedic specialists may be involved to treat the specific condition.

  • The first line of treatment includes medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, corticosteroid injections, and opioids. (5)
  • Therapeutic massages, osteopathic manipulation, and physical therapy may help to ease the pain and improve the movement.
  • Alternate therapies, such as acupuncture and vitamin supplements.
  • Cervical collars, braces, lumbar support, and orthotics are some aids and devices that support the affected part until recovery. (6)
  • Surgical intervention such as joint replacement, arthroscopy, and soft tissue repair may be required in some cases.

Take away message

Musculoskeletal pain is typically characterized as the pain of the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. It is mainly caused by accidental injury, infection, poor posture, fractures, and nerve compression. Some other causes of musculoskeletal pain may include scoliosis, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and osteoporosis. Clinically, the type and quality of pain may vary depending on the location and the type of body part involved.

Bone pain is dull aching, ligament, and tendon pain are sharpshooting; muscle pain is often intense and short-lived. Additionally, the patient may experience swelling, stiffness, redness, weakness, and fatigue.

Diagnosis is based on clinical history, radiographic study, and blood tests. Treatment depends on the type of cause and may include medication therapy, physiotherapy, acupuncture, supportive aids, and surgical intervention. Rest is mandatory to ease the discomfort and allow healing of the affected part.

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