Muscle and joint pain belong to a larger category of common pain conditions affecting the muscles, connective tissue, and bones of a body, known as musculoskeletal pain1A.

The musculoskeletal system includes all the physical structures of the human body that help support body weight and facilitate movement.2A This system includes the bones, muscles, ligaments, joints, tendons2B, and other connective tissues.

Because all these components are so connected and intertwined, joint pain can be mistaken for muscular pain, and vice versa.

This guide covers how to tell the difference between joint and muscle pain, and the common causes, symptoms, and treatments of muscle and joint pain.

Joint Pain

Joint pain is pain or discomfort that affects the joints, which may include3:

  • ligaments (strong fibrous tissue that connects two bones together)
  • cartilage (soft tissue cushioning between two bones that prevent grating)
  • tendons

Some of the most common joints prone to joint pain are the knees, hips, and spinal joints.4A,5A

What Causes Joint Pain?

Joint pain can range from mild discomfort to agonizing pain.4B Some of the most common joint pain causes include injuries and normal wear and tear.5B


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis6A. that affects weight-bearing joints (knees, hips), as well as the hands6B.

The gradual wear and tear of joint cartilage increase the chances of bone rubbing or bone reshaping,6C which can cause pain.

Overuse injury

A contributor to chronic joint pain5C, overuse injuries cause repetitive stress and microtrauma7 to joints and components surrounding joints, which causes joint pain.

Bursitis is one example of this. It’s a condition caused by overuse of a particular joint.8A It results in painful swelling, irritation, and inflammation8B of a bursa, which is a fluid-filled sac located between bones in a joint. It tends to occur in the knees, shoulders, elbows, hips, and feet8C.

For more information on the symptoms and treatment of upper back pain check out our guide here.

Risk Factors for Joint Pain

Risk factors that may contribute to joint pain5D include:

  • prior injury or injuries at a joint
  • excess weight (being overweight or obese)
  • increased age (daily wear and tear on joints)

Muscle Pain

Muscle pain describes pain affecting a muscle,9A,10A a group of muscles, or tendons. Tendons are the connective tissues that attach muscle to bone.

The six major groups of skeletal muscles 11are:

  • back
  • arms
  • Legs
  • shoulders
  • chest
  • abdominal area

All of these muscle groups are prone to muscle pain due to injury, repetitive stress, or other reasons. 9B

What Causes Muscle Pain?

Common causes for muscle pain include acute soft-tissue injuries that tend to resolve with enough rest and treatment with at-home remedies. Below are common injuries that cause muscle pain.

Muscle strain

A muscle strain, also known as a pulled muscle, involves stretching a muscle beyond its normal ability12 This causes tears in the muscle fibers, resulting in pain.

Impact injury resulting in bruising

Impact injuries to a muscle that result in bruising can cause pain and tenderness13 in the impact area. For example, getting kicked in the calf muscle can leave a painful and tender feeling, alongside bruising. It may last for a few days.14

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms are the sudden and involuntary tightening and contraction of a muscle.15A This can produce painful sensations. Muscle spasms may last from a few seconds to a few minutes15B, and may occur more than once15C.

Overuse injuries

Physical inactivity conditions the muscle into becoming immobile and weak16. However, beyond directly impacting the weak muscle(s) itself, surrounding muscle groups have to overwork to compensate for the weak muscle17. This can in turn lead to overuse injuries and muscle pain.

For example, weak abdominal muscles can cause the back muscles to work harder,18A In order to support upper body weight. Constant overuse of the back muscles can eventually lead to chronic back muscle pain and back muscle strain18B.

See our guide on what causes lower back pain and how to treat and relieve it here.

Risk Factors for Muscle Pain

The following may increase your risk of developing muscle pain:

  • tight hamstrings, and weak abdominal or back muscles19
  • overexerting during a workout20A
  • working a job that is physically intensive

Essentially, situations where you are overusing a certain muscle or physically overexerting your body and muscles, may increase your risk of developing muscle pain. These factors can also increase your risk of the pain turning chronic (long-lasting).9C

How to Tell the Difference Between Joint and Muscle Pain

So, all that said, what is the actual difference between joint pain and muscle pain?

In terms of how the pain itself feels, the distinguishing factor between joint and muscle pain is the location of the pain within the affected area. Muscle pain can be felt deep within the flesh, and may affect one specific muscle or group9D, or be felt all over. Joint pain, however, is felt at the bone or immediately surrounding a joint.5E

We’ll take a closer look at the symptoms of these two types of pain below.

Symptoms of Joint and Muscle Pain

Here are some common symptoms you might experience with joint and muscle pain:

Joint Pain Symptoms

Joint pain in common weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, hips6E, and spinal joints, tends to be easier to identify because of where they are located.

Other symptoms you might experience with joint pain5F include:

  • swelling
  • inflammation
  • redness or warmth
  • creakiness or tendency to make noise when moving
  • difficulty bending or straightening the joint

Muscle Pain Symptoms

Muscle pain affects muscles and tendons9E, and can be felt deep within the flesh. You might feel:9F

  • dull aching
  • sharp pain
  • muscle spasms
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle stiffness or tension

More severe cases of muscle pain, such as in the case of delayed-onset muscle soreness, may reduce your range of motion.20B

Treatment for Joint and Muscle Pain

Mild cases of muscle pain should self-resolve within a few weeks20C.

Joint injury recovery tends to be longer-term21 than muscle pain recovery (not including chronic muscle pain), however, both muscle and joint pain can benefit from similar pain relief treatments.

Muscle pain can be alleviated with rest and some physical movement10B, while simply resting is great for joint pain.

OTC Pain Medication

Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen, can temporarily ease muscle or joint pain22, but it is recommended that you speak with your healthcare provider for more information.

Topical Pain Relievers

Topical pain relievers, such as Biofreeze topical pain products, are another option for temporary muscle and joint pain relief. These pain relievers are applied to the skin for penetrating pain relief.

Biofreeze topical products feature menthol, which provides a cooling sensation23 and pain relief for sore muscles and joints24.

Cold or Heat Therapy

Cold and heat therapy are easy at-home remedies that can ease pain. Cold therapy, like ice packs, helps to manage pain25A  and reduce any swelling or inflammation 25B  in the muscle or joint. Meanwhile, heat therapy, like a heating pad, helps to relax stiff and sore muscles or joints.25C

Physical Therapy

If your muscle or joint pain is due to an injury, physical therapy may help to restore strength and normal movement or function through a variety of stretches and exercises. 26