Having the odd aches and pain are common, but is there a difference between the two? And when should you be worried about it? That’s exactly what we’re exploring in this article. From what aches and pains are and symptoms associated with them to potential causes, find out everything you need to know here.
The Medical Dictionary describes an ache as “continuous pain as opposed to sharp pangs or twinges” and that “an ache can be either dull and constant” like with some types of backache, or “throbbing”, like with some types of headache and toothache.1
So technically, an ache is a type of pain. Offering an additional description, the Cambridge Dictionary defines an ache as “a continuous pain that is unpleasant but not very strong”.2
Not sure what’s causing your body aches? That’s okay. We’ve listed some common causes of aching below, and how to try and prevent them in the future…
By now, most of us know that stress is bad for us. But did you know that it can contribute to your body aches? In fact, some studies have shown that increased stress levels are associated with increased headaches.3,4 But it’s not just relevant for headaches. In fact, when we’re stressed, our muscles become tense as a protective mechanism – and this can happen in either our upper muscles or our back muscles.5
So what can you do to keep stress at bay? The NHS suggests trying the following ten stress busting techniques:6
That’s right, overusing your muscles can contribute to muscle aches. Whether you’re someone who hits the gym multiple times a week or you’re a racket sport fanatic, you’re probably aware of the impact of repetitive training.
Another potential cause of your muscle aches could be something called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – or DOMS for short. This is something that can happen after you’ve exercised a little harder than usual, where your muscles become stiff and achy for a few days afterwards.9
To help ease the effects of DOMS, you can try the following:9
Ever had a rough night’s sleep and woken up feeling all achy? This might just be down to being inactive for a prolonged period, like during the night or if you’ve been sat working from home for hours.10
Most of potential causes of aches (that we’ve listed above) can be manageable on their own, but there are some instances when you should seek medical help. For example with DOMS, if you’re experiencing muscle aches for more than five days or they get worse, speak to your GP.9
Additionally, if your general aches are stopping you from doing normal activities, affecting your sleep, getting worse, not going away after two weeks or you’re feeling stiff for more than 30 minutes after waking up – go and see your GP.16
Pain is incredibly complex, so it’s not an easy task to break down what it actually is. So as a starting point, let’s take a look at its definition. The Medical Dictionary describes pain as an “unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons. The discomfort signals actual or potential injury to the body”.17
The word ‘pain’ is an umbrella term for a whole range of different sensations. But what sorts of sensations does it include? You may experience pain as pricking, tingling, stinging, burning, shooting, aching, or electric sensations.20
How else can you experience pain though? Some other types of acute pain include cramps, strains, cuts, burns, bruises and bone fractures. Types of chronic pain include backache, joint pain, shoulder pain and pain in most other areas of the body.
There are so many potential causes of pain and it would be impossible to list them all here. But to help point you in the right direction, we have listed a few of the most common conditions and causes of pain, below…
Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain in all parts of the body. Its exact cause is unknown, but it’s thought that having abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain and how the central nervous system processes sending pain messages through the body are a potential reason.21
If you experience joint pain, tenderness, stiffness – as well as restricted movement, joint inflammation, muscle weakness and redness around your joints – it may be worth speaking to your GP about arthritis. This is a common condition that can affect people of all ages, including children.25
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is a complication condition that causes persistent, severe and debilitating pain. Often times CRPS is caused by an injury, where the pain is even more intense and longer lasting than in standard instances.27
It generally affects one limb, but it can spread to other areas of the body. Affected areas are incredibly sensitive to touch and temperature differences, as well as being swollen, stiff and changing in colour.27
The NHS says that there are four types of treatment for CRPS, which includes:28
So when should you manage your symptoms at home and when should you seek medical help? If you have a sports injury and your pain doesn’t improve over a few days, you can visit a GP, local minor injuries unit or NHS walk-in centre for advice. If it’s more severe, like a suspected broken bone, dislocation or head injury, immediately go to your nearest A&E.29
If you have the symptoms of fibromyalgia that we listed above alongside pain, visit your GP for treatment.21 Again, if you have pain as well as the other arthritis symptoms we listed, arrange an appointment with your GP so you can have an accurate diagnosis.25
The bottom line is, if you have persistent pain that gets in the way of your everyday life, it’s best to organise a doctor’s appointment.27
If you have general body or muscle aches, thankfully it’s usually pretty straightforward to manage. As we mentioned earlier, you can try using ice packs on the sore areas, massaging your achy muscles, practicing some light stretches or taking painkillers.9
How to manage pain If you have mild or moderate pain, some management techniques provided by the NHS include:30
It is certainly tricky to differentiate between an ache and pain, but we hope you’re feeling a little clearer about what they both are and how they can differ. And ultimately, you should seek help from a medical professional if your aches or pains are ongoing and are getting in the way of your living your normal life.