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The difference between aches and pains: when to worry

06 Apr 2023 • 15 min read

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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.

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What is an ache?

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

Common types of ache

You can experience aches all over your body. But some of the most common include: 

  • Back ache
  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Toothache
  • Earache

Handpicked content: 5 Things Everyone WFH Should Know About Their Joints, Bones & Muscles

Causes of aches and how can you help yourself

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…

Stress

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 

  • Be active – exercise can help clear your thoughts, so if you’re working from home, why not try and get up from your desk for 5-10 minutes every hour?
  • Take control – if something is contributing to your stress, actively try to find a solution to help you feel empowered.
  • Connect with people – having fun with your friends and family can help to provide a new perspective and take your mind off your stress.
  • Take some “me time” – try to allow yourself time to do things just for you, maybe schedule time for this in your diary once or twice a week?
  • Set yourself a new challenge – accomplishing a challenge can help you feel more confident, so you could try something new like learning about yoga.
  • Avoid unhealthy habits – try not to rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine to make you feel better, because in the long run, it won’t help.
  • Help other people – volunteering or helping the community can also help you to build confidence and resilience.
  • Work smarter, not harder – prioritise your tasks from most to least important and work on them in that order, you might see a bigger difference in your work achievements. 
  • Look for the positives – gratitude journalling is great for helping you to see the positives in your life, so aim to write three things you’re grateful for each morning.

Muscle overuse

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.

This can lead to something called an “overuse injury”, which is essentially a micro-trauma that comes about after repeated movement or training errors, like when you take on too much activity too quickly.7

This is why it’s super important for people engaging in regular exercise to have rest days, as this allows the muscle tissue to repair itself. Otherwise, the build up of damaged muscle tissue can cause pain and dysfunction.8

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

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 

  • Use ice packs
  • Massage your muscles 
  • Do some light stretches
  • Take painkillers or anti-inflammatories if necessary

Poor sleep

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

Interestingly, research has shown that there may be a link between insomnia and musculoskeletal discomfort. As well as this, scientists believe there is strong evidence to suggest that short or disturbed sleep can contribute to increased pain sensitivity, muscle aches and headaches.11

So to improve your sleep, try things like getting more light exposure during the day, try to avoid blue light at night, keep your caffeine intake to the morning and early afternoon sleep and try to fall asleep and wake up at consistent times each day.12,13,14,15

When should you worry about an ache?

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

What is pain?

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

Additionally, there are different types of pain. For example, short term pain is known as acute pain. Long term pain is called persistent or chronic pain and pain that comes and goes is known as intermittent or recurrent pain.18 Pain can range from being quite mild to explosive.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can experience pain in any part of your body. Firstly, pain in your skin, muscle, ligaments, joints and bones is often referred to as nociceptive pain. Injured tissue is known as inflammatory pain, discomfort from your nerves is called neuropathic pain and pain in your internal organs is known as visceral pain.19

Common symptoms of pain

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.

Causes of pain and how can you help it

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

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

People with fibromyalgia also experience muscle stiffness, sleep issues, brain fog, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and low mood.22 If you get diagnosed with fibromyalgia, your GP will help to find the best course of action to help manage your pain. This often includes a combination of exercise, talking therapy and medication.23

In addition to this, the NHS recommends making improvements to your sleep habits and consistently taking the time to relax each day.24

Arthritis

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

The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, but there are many other types and conditions related to arthritis that are similar. Doctors usually recommend making lifestyle changes first, then medication and finally surgery for joints severely impacted bt rheumatoid arthritis.25

Having a healthy, balanced diet is important for managing arthritis. As is regular exercise and moving in certain ways to protect your joints.26 Versus Arthritis has some helpful information on managing your pain, if you need it.

Handpicked content: Arthritis Isn’t Just An “Old” Person’s Disease

Complex regional pain syndrome

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 

  • Education and self-management
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Pain relief
  • Psychological support

Sports injuries

And lastly, pain can come about if you’ve injured your body from participating in sports or exercise. If you’ve injured yourself this way, you may experience immediate pain, tenderness, bruising, stiffness and restricted movement. But it can also take a few hours to notice some of these signs.29

Obviously, an accident like a fall or a heavy blow often can’t be helped. But other causes may be prevented, for example warming up properly, using the right technique and not pushing yourself too hard might help to keep sports injuries at bay.29

Handpicked content: Getting back to exercise after injury

When should you worry about pain?

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

How to manage aches

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

  • Doing some gentle exercise
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Educating yourself on pain 
  • Taking counselling 
  • Distracting yourself with an enjoyable activity 
  • Sharing your feelings with someone 
  • Sticking to a normal sleeping routine where possible 
  • Taking a self-management course
  • Socialising with friends and family 
  • Practicing relaxation techniques

The final say

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.

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