Why your joints ache
Have you ever lifted a heavy bag too quickly and hurt your back? Or gone for a run and twisted your ankle? If so, you’ll know the lingering pain this can inflict. But because these are mundane, everyday injuries, we tend to dismiss joint and muscle issues as minor inconveniences and don’t seek treatment.
That’s not a good idea. Pain is your body’s natural warning system and early treatment can curtail your suffering and also prevent chronic symptoms from setting in. Physical therapy applied early on can make investigations, surgery, pain medication, injections and additional medical appointments at a later date all less necessary. The message is clear: where joint and muscle pain are concerned, it pays to be proactive.
So what exactly is musculoskeletal pain? It is any pain that affects the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and nerves. This is commonly — but not always — caused by physical injury. These are often as a result of mundane activities such as prolonged sitting, holding an awkward posture or reaching overhead. Overuse of specific muscles or joints can also lead to repetitive strain injury (RSI), which is caused by microscopic tissue damage that worsens with repeated movement. Age is another risk factor. Osteoarthritis, for example, is a painful condition that’s caused by the wearing away of protective cartilage where two bones meet to create a joint. By the time we reach later life, many of us have completely worn out commonly used joints like the hip and knee. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of disability in older adults, affecting 10-15 percent of those over the age of 60.
Musculoskeletal pain can also be a symptom of illness. For example, fibromyalgia is a condition whereby sufferers experience chronic body pain lasting for months on end. It is often widespread throughout the body and accompanied by unexplained tiredness. This affects three to six percent of the world’s population and, while there is currently no known cure, early diagnosis allows patients to make lifestyle changes that can make the condition easier to live with.
To treat musculoskeletal pain, painkillers are often the first resort. But in many cases chronic pain requires a broader approach. As always, the best first step is early assessment by your primary physician, but you could then be referred to manual therapy or physical therapy experts, osteopaths, chiropractors, anaesthesiologists, naturopathic practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and home care nurses.
This is because pain can be a sign of another condition and what seems like a simple injury might require input from specialists. If there is no identifiable cause and a chronic pain syndrome is suspected, you may well undergo a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’. In such a case, the most likely cause of your pain is diagnosed by ruling out all provable explanations for your symptoms. Doctors might run many tests before giving you a chronic pain syndrome diagnosis.
It sounds alarming but even if you do fall into this category, it need not consign you to a lifetime of discomfort. There is a wide variety of medications available as well as physical therapy and electrical nerve stimulators that are all effective tools for managing long-term pain. And there are more innovative therapies, such as injecting injured joints with numbing medicine under ultrasound guidance or with platelet-rich plasma (PRP), or with stem cells derived from fat from your own body.
The point is: do not ignore the pain. US government statistics from 2015 show that musculoskeletal complaints accounted for nearly one-third of all days absent from work. This figure could be greatly reduced if people were more inclined to seek treatment for what they perceive as a ‘normal’ ailment. Rather than hobbling along and hoping the pain will go away, there is plenty you can do to keep the debilitating effects to a minimum.
The alternative is to develop a resilience to pain without understanding where it’s coming from. Do this and you run the risk of it becoming a nagging feature for life. So surely it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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Dr. Gustavo Rydberg has over 15 years of experience in musculoskeletal and sports medicine. He practices at Novomed Integrative Medicine a preventative health centre located at Sunset Mall, Jumeirah. The opinions in this column are not necessarily those held by Esquire or ITP.