Muscle Aches

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 07/2021

Muscle aches are a possible side effect of cancer and cancer treatment. Another term for muscle aches is myalgia. Muscle aches can occur on their own or they can be associated with other symptoms, like muscle weakness, cramps, or depression.

Muscle aches may affect a specific area in the body or affect the whole body. The muscle aches may be mild, severe, or somewhere in between. They might be constant or come and go. When untreated, muscle aches can affect your quality of life, limit how much you can do, and make other symptoms or side effects seem worse. They may even cause you to stop treatment early.

If you have muscle aches, let your health care team know. Relieving symptoms is an important part of your cancer care and treatment. This type of care is called palliative care or supportive care. It helps people with any type or stage of cancer feel better.

What causes muscle aches?

When you have cancer, the following factors can cause muscle aches:

Cancer. Certain types of cancer are more likely to cause muscle aches, including:

  • Tumors that start in a muscle, such as some kinds of soft-tissue sarcoma

  • Tumors that press against a muscle

  • Cancers that cause the body to make too many white blood cells, such as certain types of leukemia

Cancer treatments. When treatment ends, muscle aches usually go away. In some cases, muscle aches can be a late effect, happening months or years after treatment ends.

Treatments that may cause muscle aches include:

  • Some types of chemotherapy, such as docetaxel (Taxotere), ixabepilone (Ixempra), paclitaxel (Taxol), and vincristine (Vincasar PFS)

  • Aromatase inhibitors (AIs), such as anastrozole (Arimidex), exemestane (Aromasin), and letrozole (Femara)

  • Other hormonal therapies, including fulvestrant (Faslodex), raloxifene (Evista), tamoxifen (Soltamox), and toremifene (Fareston)

  • Targeted therapy, such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) and T-DM1 or ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla)

  • Immunotherapy, such as interferons, interleukins, and CTLA-4 and PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors

  • Radiation therapy

Other medications. Medicine for cancer-related symptoms or other conditions can cause muscle aches. Some examples include:

  • White blood cell growth factors, which help prevent infection during cancer treatment, including filgrastim (Granix, Neupogen, Zarxio), pegfilgrastim (Fulphila, Neulasta), and sargramostim (Leukine)

  • Drugs to treat bone loss called bisphosphonates, such as alendronate sodium (Binosto, Fosamax), ibandronate sodium (Boniva), pamidronate (Aredia), risedronate (Actonel), and zoledronic acid (Zometa)

  • Cholesterol drugs, also called statins

Cancer-related side effects. Symptoms or side effects such as fatigue, muscle weakness, depression, cramps, and dehydration can cause muscle aches or make them worse. Talk with your health care team about any side effects you are experiencing so they can help provide relief.

Other factors. Other things can cause muscle aches, including reasons unrelated to your cancer diagnosis. Possible causes for muscle aches include:

  • Overuse of a muscle through activities, sports, or work

  • Muscle injuries caused by accidents, such as a fall

  • Getting an infection (such as the flu or COVID-19) with a virus or bacteria

  • Diseases such as polymyalgia rheumatica, lupus, and fibromyalgia

  • Poor blood supply to the affected muscle

  • Hormone disorders such as an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)

  • Changes in electrolyte (blood chemistry) levels, such as magnesium or potassium

How do doctors find the cause of muscle aches?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They will also ask questions such as:

  • Where do you ache?

  • Do the muscle aches stop and start? If so, when?

  • How long have you had them?

  • Is the pain dull, sharp, or some other description?

  • What makes your muscles feel better? Worse?

  • Do the aches cause problems with your everyday activities?

  • What other symptoms, such as muscle weakness, do you have?

If your cancer treatment is causing muscle aches, your doctor may recommend a different treatment, having treatments less often, or getting a lower dose.

If they are unsure about the cause of your muscle aches or if your muscle aches do not go away or get worse, you may need additional tests to help find the cause. These can include:

Blood tests. They can show an infection, dehydration, or another condition that can cause muscle aches.

Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. This scan makes a 3-dimensional image of the inside of the body.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields to produce detailed images of the body.

Bone scan. You may have this test if your doctor thinks the problem may be related to your bones.

Contact your doctor right away if you develop additional symptoms, such as:

  • Muscle weakness

  • Fever

  • Pain around the waist or chest

  • Loss of bladder control

  • Confusion

  • Stiff neck

  • Numbness and tingling anywhere in the body

These can be signs of serious medical conditions that need immediate attention.

How are muscle aches treated and managed?

When possible, doctors treat the condition that is causing the muscle aches. Below are some possible treatment options.

Medication. There are medications that can help make muscle aches feel better. Your health care team may recommend or prescribe medications, including:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol)

  • Muscle relaxants

  • Steroid medicines

  • Antibiotics

  • Antidepressants

Your health care team may also recommend self-care and support methods of treating muscle aches. You may decide to do some of these methods in addition to medication or instead of medication for mild or moderate muscle aches. Some of these practices you can do on your own. Others require you to work with a licensed or certified specialist. Talk with your health care team before trying these methods.

Some self-care and support methods you can use to treat muscle aches are:

Massage. A massage therapist who has experience working with people with cancer can do a gentle therapeutic massage that may help ease muscle pain. You or your caregiver can also do simple massage at home.

Physical therapy. A physical therapist can treat muscle problems and teach you how to relieve pain using simple exercises or devices.

Exercise. Gentle exercise, along with stretching and strengthening, may help loosen muscles and increase blood flow.

Heat and cold. Hot or cold compresses, heating pads, or ice packs may help decrease discomfort from muscle aches. Talk with your health care team about how long and how often to apply heat or cold.

Relaxation techniques. Gentle breathing or meditation exercises can help you relax and reduce muscle tension. This can help muscles ache less.

Track the results of the techniques you use to find out which ones manage your muscle aches best. You can use a chart like the one in the ASCO Answers Managing Cancer-Related Pain booklet (PDF) to track your pain.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Could my muscle aches be caused by cancer? Or is it caused by something else?

  • When should I call you if I develop muscle aches or if my muscle aches get worse?

  • How should I keep track of my muscle aches?

  • What treatments do you recommend for my muscle aches?

  • Do you recommend other types of supportive care for muscle aches?

  • Are there things I can do at home to ease my muscle aches?

Related Resources

Pain: Causes and Diagnosis

Joint Pain

Rehabilitation

Types of Complementary Therapies

More Information

Medline Plus: Muscle Aches