Dealing with muscle and joint pain after COVID-19?
COVID-19 symptoms range from those resembling the flu or a bad cold to ones that are much more severe.
There are less frequent symptoms some people experience both during the illness and long after recovery. One of those is COVID muscle and joint pain, such as in the neck, back and leg.
Muscle and joint pain
“People with muscle and joint pain during and after having COVID-19 typically feel it in their back and shoulders,” said Kristine Cottone, a physical therapist at OSF HealthCare. “It’s the fifth-most prevalent symptom in the first 30 days of COVID.”
Symptoms like stiffness, tenderness, pain and aches can be felt in the lower back, legs, neck, shoulders and upper back. These symptoms are rheumatic-like, which refers to arthritis and other conditions that affect the joints, tendons, muscle, ligaments and bones.
“The inflammatory response causes the body to basically say it has a rheumatic-like condition like rheumatoid arthritis (RA),” she said. “The difference is that the muscle and joint pain is triggered by a virus like COVID. Maybe with medication it resolves over time, versus if you have RA, your body doesn’t cure it.”
The COVID muscle and joint pain people experience is typically associated with long COVID. An individual is considered to have long COVID if after 30 days, they still experience symptoms.
“Upwards of 10% of persons experiencing long COVID are reporting muscle and joint aches and pains,” she said.
When to see your doctor
If you’ve been experiencing muscle and joint pain following a bout with COVID-19 and it’s not getting better with time, it’s probably time to see your doctor.
“In cases like this, your primary care provider will usually refer you to a physical therapist,” Kristine said. “The first evaluation will take about an hour, and that’s when the therapist gets to know you, finds out what’s troubling you and develops a treatment plan.”
But in addition to physical therapy, patients may also be referred to behavioral and mental health services due to the psychological impact of their COVID-19 experience.
“People who have had difficult experiences with COVID, such as those who spent a long time with it in the hospital, may have various psychological symptoms as a result, such as depression, anxiety, stress and fear,” Kristine added. “These symptoms can amplify how they perceive pain in their physical bodies.”
What to take for COVID body aches
COVID body aches usually go away on their own without any extra treatment.
It’s important to stay hydrated, so drink plenty of fluids, Kristine said. Also, get plenty of rest as your immune system works to fight infection and inflammation.
To relieve pain, consider taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen, if you’re able. Whether to use pain relievers is a topic to discuss with your primary care provider.
“There are a number of factors involved when you bring medications into the mix. That’s why it’s best to do it safely by getting your doctor’s advice,” Kristine said.
Hot and cold therapy, which is applying heat followed by ice, can also be beneficial in easing COVID body aches.
A hot bath is good for COVID aches, too.
“There’ s nothing wrong with taking a nice warm bath,” Kristine said. “Just make sure the water temperature is not too hot, and be careful getting out of the tub to avoid a slip or fall.”
How long do COVID body aches last?
“How long can you expect the pain to last really runs the gamut,” she said. “The aches and pain can be very widespread. It can be experienced in multiple areas or be isolated to a single area.”
Symptoms can take up to three months to appear, Kristine said.
But how severe it is and how long it lasts really varies by the individual.
“The onset fluctuates and can last anywhere between one and three months … there’s really no pattern of symptoms,” she said. “And the location of symptoms can be very broad and is unique to each person.”
When to see your doctor
If you’re experiencing muscle and joint pain, you should see a doctor.
“In cases like this, your primary care provider will usually refer you to a physical therapist,” Kristine said. “The first evaluation will take about 45 minutes. That’s when the therapist gets to know you, finds out what’s troubling you and develops a treatment plan.”
In addition to physical therapy, patients may be referred to behavioral and mental health services.
“People who have had difficult experiences with COVID, such as those who spent a long time in the hospital, may have psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, stress and fear,” Kristine added. “These symptoms can amplify how they perceive pain in their physical bodies
Time to get moving!
“Exercise is always the best medicine, especially for muscle and joint conditions,” Kristine said. “A physical therapist will develop an exercise regimen to address the problems and take into consideration an individual’s physical limitations.”
Those limitations are usually measured on the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion, also known as the Borg Scale. It’s used for measuring the amount of exertion a person perceives they’re having to put forth when exercising. It’s a 0-10 scale with 0 being the body at rest. A 1 is an activity requiring the least amount of effort and 10 requires maximum effort.
“Just like with pain, each person perceives their level of exertion differently. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Kristine said.
“We normally recommend patients start in the 1-3 range and work into more moderate workouts in the 4-6 range,” she said. “It all depends on the person’s level of fitness. A physical therapist works to ensure the patient safely progresses through the scale.”
In some cases, aquatic therapy is recommended. Benefits of working in the water include greater pain-free movement, relaxed muscles, increased strength and improved endurance.
“It’s a nice way to ease back into physical activity,” Kristine said. “We’re finding a lot of treatments are similar and have the same positive effects as those we use for folks with arthritis or recovering from an injury.”
Last Updated: August 8, 2023