While you probably know whether a bad cold or that new barre class spurred your aching joints or muscles, you might be wondering how totally different things can provoke similar types of pain.
The answer, usually, is through inflammation.
“There’s a process of inflammation that occurs when the body has an infection, and some of the inflammatory mediators that we use to fight the infection cause fever and body aches,” says Erich Voigt, MD, an otolaryngologist at NYU Langone Health.
But a slew of other behaviors and conditions can amp up your body’s inflammatory responses—like repetitive motion and stress—triggering body aches in the process, he notes. So, why exactly do different parts of your body throb and twinge? Beyond getting older, here is a closer look at the most common reasons for your body aches, why your body responds with pain in the first place, and how to find relief.
Cold and flu season is in full swing
“The body aches related to an infection such as pharyngitis (sore throat) or flu are related to the immune system’s response to the infection,” says Stephen Parodi, MD, infectious disease expert at Kaiser Permanente. “Our body releases certain chemicals, including ones called interferons, which help fight off the infection, but also cause body aches.” What’s more, your immune system is channeling most of your body’s energy into fighting off the infection, causing you to feel super tired.
✖️Ease the aches: Take it slow and get some rest. Dr. Parodi suggests over-the-counter medications for pain relief, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, especially if you have the flu.
“Flu tends to make people sicker than regular cold viruses, and the body aches and fevers can be higher with flu. That’s why it is so important to get vaccinated and prevent the infection altogether,” he says.
You might have mononucleosis
Typically caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), mono is a type of infection common among teenagers and young adults, usually transmitted through saliva. The symptoms of mono include extreme fatigue, sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. And because it’s infectious, like pharyngitis and flu, your immune system will have a similar inflammatory response, resulting in body aches.
✖Ease the aches: Getting some rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking some OTC meds for fever and pain should help you find relief, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There’s no specific treatment plan for mono, since antibiotics can’t zap viral infections. You should still touch base with your doc to get an official diagnosis, who will be able to provide prescription meds if another infection occurs at the same time, like strep.
You went too hard during your workout
Trying a new type of exercise (or even just working a muscle group you’ve ignored for a while) can make you feel sore post-sweat. That muscle soreness, specifically the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you feel a day or two after a hard workout, is the result of small tears in your tissues, according to a study published in Clinics in Sports Medicine. This results in inflammation, which causes that can’t-sit-down-properly feeling in your legs after you’ve done one too many squats.
✖️Ease the aches: It’s nothing to be worried about; DOMS is indicative of your muscles adapting to a new activity so they can do it again. Your muscles will heal within a few days, but doing a few foam-roller exercises during your recovery period can help speed the process up. If you like a deeper pressure, try a firm foam roller like this one from Amazon. If you rather go with gentle relief, try a softer one like this one from OPTP.
You’re using one part of your body over and over
When you repeatedly use just one part of your body—whether while working out or typing at work—a more focused body ache and concentrated pain can take the form of a repetitive motion injury. A common example? Carpal tunnel syndrome.
Doing the same motion repeatedly can cause muscles, ligaments, and tendons to become swollen and inflamed, which causes the ache. In addition to aches, you may notice a lack of strength and reduced range of motion in the affected area.
✖️Ease the aches: Strengthening exercises through physical therapy, wearing braces to keep the area stable, and occupational therapy may be needed to get the body part functioning normally again.
You feel too stressed
Psychological stress can have physical manifestations, from headaches to jaw pain to lower back pain. That’s because when you’re stressed, your body pumps out the hormone cortisol. While that’s not a problem in the short-term, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association concludes that chronic stress can amp up inflammation, causing muscle breakdown, pain, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Plus, your body becomes more susceptible to infection when you can’t chill out.
✖️Ease the aches: Take some time each day to do something that helps you unwindfrom your daily stressors. Just breathing deeply for a few minutes (or even meditating), taking a walk during your lunch break, or a hot bath after work can help rejuvenate your body and mind.
You’re not sleeping soundly