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What to Know About Bone Pain

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 18, 2021

Bone pain and joint/muscle pain affect similar parts of your body. This can make it hard to tell the difference between them. You might feel muscle pain or aches after a hard workout or when you have the flu. Or you might feel achiness in joints like your ankles, knees, or elbows from arthritis or just getting older.

Bone pain usually feels deeper, sharper, and more intense than muscle pain. Muscle pain also feels more generalized throughout the body and tends to ease within a day or two, while bone pain is more focused and lasts longer. Bone pain is also less common than joint or muscle pain, and should always be taken seriously.

Common Causes of Bone Pain

Injury. If you have new, sharp bone pain, you may have a fracture, or broken bone. That can be the result of a sudden traumatic injury, like a car accident, fall, or sports injury. You could also have a small crack in your bone called a stress fracture. Athletes often get these from overusing their bodies.

Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a bone disease that makes your bones less dense and takes away bone mass. Typically this happens in older adults. The decrease in bone strength can lead to painful fractures, which can happen anywhere in the body but are most common in the hip, the spine, and the wrist.

Cancer. Bone pain can be a symptom of cancer that has spread from another part of the body into your bones. It can also be a sign of cancer that started in a bone, also known as osteosarcoma. This cancer develops most often in the long bones of the arms and the legs. The pain often gets worse at night and can sometimes get better with movement.

Sickle cell disease. When you have this inherited blood disorder, you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen through your body. The lack of oxygen can cause damage to your bone and severe bone pain.

Infection. Infection in the bone is called osteomyelitis. It can happen when an infection that started somewhere else in the body spreads to the bone. It can also start in the bone itself, often because of an injury. Osteomyelitis can affect people at any age but is more common in children. You’re also at higher risk if you have sickle cell disease.

Pregnancy. Pelvic bone pain is a common symptom in pregnancy. You may hear your doctor call it pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain (PPGP).

Treatment

To decide on an effective treatment for bone pain, your doctor will need to figure out what is causing it. Some types of bone pain will ultimately go away after treatment, while other types may be chronic and have to be managed for a long time.

Injuries such as fractures may have to be set with a cast or splint. Stress fractures are typically treated with rest, ice, and elevation.

Your doctor can treat osteoporosis-related bone pain with a combination of bone-building medications and pain medications as well as lifestyle changes and fall prevention to help prevent fractures. You may get temporary relief from bone pain by using over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen.

Osteomyelitis typically requires treatment with either oral or intravenous antibiotics.

Treatment for cancer-related pain can be very complex. Your doctor will choose an option based on the stage of your disease and where the cancer originated.

Bone pain related to sickle cell disease can be treated with a variety of medications depending on how severe it is.

PPGP doesn’t usually go away until after the baby is delivered, but can be helped with physical therapy and exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor.

No matter what you think the cause may be, it is important to see a doctor if you have any type of significant bone pain.

Preventing Bone Pain

Maintaining strong, healthy bones is the best way to prevent at least some types of bone pain, such as those related to osteoporosis. To do that, you should:

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

UCLA Health: “Bone Pain.”

Osteoporosis in Clinical Practice: “Differential Diagnosis: Bone Pain and Fractures.”

Johns Hopkins Department of Orthopaedic Surgery: “Good Pain Vs. Bad Pain for Athletes.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Stress Fractures,” “Bone Fractures.”

NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center: “Osteoporosis Overview.”

Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica: “Pathophysiology of bone pain: A review.”

Clinical Cases in Mineral Bone Metabolism: “Bone pain mechanism in osteoporosis: a narrative review.”

American Cancer Society: “Bone Metastases.”

CDC: “Complications and treatments of sickle cell disease.”

American Family Physician: “Approaches to the Vaso-Occlusive Crisis in Adults with Sickle Cell Disease.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Sickle Cell Disease.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Osteomyelitis.”

BMC Medicine: “Pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain: an update.”

Mayo Clinic: “Bone Health: Tips to Keep Your Bones Healthy.”

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