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IS IT NERVE PAIN OR MUSCLE PAIN?

Dr. Rae Osborn 21 Apr 2022
IS IT NERVE PAIN OR MUSCLE PAIN?

Conditions that cause pain are quite common, but treatment works best if the source of pain and discomfort is known. The nervous system innervates every organ in the body, which means that a person can experience nerve pain in any structure of the body. It is because of the nervous system that people experience painful stimuli in the first place.

The way the system works is a signal is sent along a nerve to the brain, where it is interpreted. Feeling pain is important because it is a warning that something is wrong. However, pain is debilitating and can be difficult to treat, particularly if the origin of the pain is not known.

This article examines the differences between nerve and muscle pain and explains some of the causes of each type of pain. The symptoms and treatment options for nerve and muscle tenderness are also discussed.

What is Nerve Pain?

Nerve pain (neuralgia) is when there is irritation, inflammation, or some other condition that directly affects the functioning of nervous tissue, resulting in soreness and discomfort.

What Causes Nerve Pain?

There are many reasons why nerves hurt.

  • Shingles is an infection due to the Herpes zoster virus. This directly affects cells along a nerve root, resulting in excruciating pain, which can last for a while.
  • Diabetic neuropathy is another cause of nerve tenderness and problems. This is when elevated blood sugar levels damage nerves and their vascular supply.
  • Small nerve fiber neuropathy can cause a burning, painful sensation in the feet. This can be due to diabetes or even a vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Structures can press against nerves. For instance, in sciatica, bone presses on the sciatic nerve, resulting in nerve pain.
  • Nerve irritation. Trigeminal neuralgia is a painful sensation in the face due to an irritated trigeminal nerve.
  • Nervous system disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease can cause neuralgia.

Symptoms of Nerve Pain

The following are sensations associated with nerve pain:

  • Tingling
  • Stabbing
  • Prickling feeling
  • Sharp painful twinge
  • Burning
  • Throbbing sensation
  • Numbness or lack of sensation along with soreness
  • Exhaustion associated with pain

Treatment Options for Nerve Pain

Treatment will depend on the cause of pain and may include certain medications such as anticonvulsants. These can work for trigeminal neuralgia, for instance. However, it is best if the underlying condition can be treated to reduce the pain. For example, better control of blood sugar levels in the case of diabetics.

What is Muscle Pain?

Muscle pain is also known as myalgia, and it is the discomfort caused by a problem with the body's muscular tissues. Most often, people experience pain associated with the skeletal muscles, which are attached to the bones. 

What Causes Muscle Pain?

  • Muscles can be strained during exercise and from overuse or injury. Certain occupations involving manual labor can cause overuse of muscles, as can sports. Muscles can be strained or sprained due to repetitive motion or from stresses placed on them. People may injure their muscles if they don’t warm up properly before exercise.
  • Stress can cause pain and stiffness in muscles. A good example of this is a tension headache, which causes due to the muscles in the head stiffening and tightening up.
  • Electrolyte imbalances caused by dehydration can produce painful muscle spasms in the calf muscles.
  • There are also health conditions that can produce muscle pain. Examples include ALS, fibromyalgia, arthritis, autoimmune illnesses such as lupus or the inflammatory condition polymyositis, and the brain disorder cervical dystonia.
  • Menstruation and childbirth cause contractions of the uterine muscles, which can be painful.
  • Viral infections such as influenza and Covid often cause muscle pain and stiffness.
  • Tick-borne infections such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever frequently cause muscle pain.

Symptoms of Muscle Pain

Muscle pain usually feels different from nerve pain. Nerve pain may feel worse, but this is not always the case. Listed below are the sensations and associated symptoms of muscle pain.

  • A constant ache
  • A sharp sensation with difficulty moving the muscle
  • Pain that comes and goes in a cramping fashion
  • A reddened area over the affected muscle
  • Swelling in the area where you feel pain

Treatment Options for Muscle Pain

There are various ways to treat muscle pain, depending on the cause. For instance, one can treat muscle spasms from dehydration by drinking water and eating healthy to get the needed electrolytes. Analgesics and anti-inflammatories help with pain from infections and inflammation.

Cold compresses can help with muscles injured by overuse that have been strained or sprained. Relaxation and rest helps to treat tension headaches.

Heat works well for menstruation cramps, and a woman can sometimes be given an epidural to ease the pain of childbirth.

What to Consider When Distinguishing Nerve Pain and Muscle Pain

Telling myalgia and neuralgia apart depends on the type of sensation and what recent activities or illnesses were present. For example, a person who recently exercised and is now experiencing steady pain in the legs and arms is most probably suffering from muscle pain. An individual diagnosed with shingles will have sharp and burning nerve pain. With shingles, there will also be a rash that follows a certain nerve root on the body.

In diagnosing pain, a doctor will take into account:

  • Type of pain (type of sensation)
  • Other symptoms, in addition to pain
  • Medical history
  • When the pain first began
  • Duration of the pain
  • Person’s occupation
  • Any recent physical activity

Conclusion

While it can be hard to tell nerve and muscle pain apart, the sensation that is felt along with a medical history and recent activity can help with diagnosis. Nerve pain is stabbing, tingling, and sharp while muscle pain is dull and steady or crampy and spasmodic. Treatment of both types of pain depends on the underlying cause.

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About the Author:

Dr. Rae Osborn has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Texas at Arlington. She was a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern State University where she taught many courses for Pre-nursing and Pre-medical students. She has written extensively on medical conditions and healthy lifestyle topics, including nutrition. She is from South Africa but lived and taught in the United States for 18 years.

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