Arthritis pain or muscle pain: how to tell the difference?


As a Good Samaritan, you helped your neighbour who was moving his couch up to the third floor. The result: your back is throbbing with pain. How can we tell the difference between arthritis pain and muscle pain?

Douleur arthritique ou musculaire : faire la différerence

Most active people sometimes come up against a few obstacles that can temporarily affect their ability to move and require taking pain medication. A wrong move, a fall or an injury are a few events that can be a source of muscle pain or inflammation. When these events occur, it seems a lot of us line up to read the dizzying selection of product packages on display in the “ analgesics and anti-inflammatory” section at the pharmacy. Faced with such a wide choice of products, it is normal to get confused, especially when we are not exactly certain just what kind of pain is bothering us.    

What is arthritis pain?

When your pain comes from a body joint like the knees, ankles or fingers, it is called arthritis pain. There are many types of arthritis (at least 100 strains...), but the most common type is known as arthrosis. This is a degenerative disease of the joints that results in the cartilage wearing down. It normally develops as we grow older, and causes a pain that returns often.

If you suffer from arthrosis, you may find:

  • that this pain appears following a period of inactivity;
  • a tenderness when you touch the joint;
  • joint stiffness;
  • discomfort during fluctuations in temperature.

Other types of arthritis, as with rheumatoid polyarthritis, also cause inflammation in addition to pain.

Tips on easing arthritis pain

You can lessen your arthritic pain by adopting a few good habits. For example:

  • Change posture often to lessen stiffness in your muscles and joints. 
  • Move the painful joint as often as possible.
  • Always squat down before picking up something off the ground.
  • When not sitting, always stand straight so as to properly align the neck, spinal column, hips and knees.
  • Perform body stretches once or twice daily.
  • Choose and wear proper footwear with shock-absorbing soles.

To help ease arthritis pain, the first choice of pain medication is acetaminophen. An effective pain reliever for this type of pain, it has the advantage of being very safe and has few secondary effects.

In some cases, you can use anti-inflammatory medication, many of which are sold over-the-counter. These products are not for everyone, and may cause undesirable effects. Always ask your pharmacist for advice before using them.

What is muscle pain?

Muscle pain originates in the muscles. As a result, you may feel pain everywhere. It can be caused by intense exercise, a fall, injury or illness (the flu, for example).

It can appear in various forms, such as:

  • aches;
  • muscle cramps;
  • muscle spasms;
  • torticollis (neck pain);
  • a sprain;
  • stretched, or pulled muscle.

Contrary to arthritis pain, muscle pain is most often felt as a sharp and normally temporary pain.


  • Take the time to properly warm up before any physical exercise, and stretch once your activity is over.  
  • Ensure you are properly hydrated when you practise sports or physical work.
  • Wear proper sports equipment.
  • Avoid sudden movements during overly-intense exercise or work.
  • When beginning a sports activity, progressively increase the intensity to allow your muscles to adapt.
  • Respect your personal limitations.


Here are a few tips if you suffer from muscle pain:

  • If you have cramps, perform exercises or movements to stretch your muscle. Applying ice to the sore area and a gentle massage can also be beneficial.
  • If the pain is sharp and there is swelling, apply ice or a cold pack for approximately 10 minutes, four times daily.
  • If you are having muscle spasms, use heat rather than cold, because heat relaxes muscles and cold increases stiffness.
  • Relax the muscle. Avoid any movement or activity that may worsen the problem.
  • Apply a compression bandage if necessary.

In the analgesic section, several types of medication are available without a prescription to help relieve muscle pains, including:

  • analgesics (e.g.: acetaminophen);
  • anti-inflammatory medication (e.g.: ibuprofen);
  • muscle relaxers;
  • creams, ointments or analgesic/anti-inflammatory gels.

Some products combine more than one medication in a single formula, such as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory with a muscle relaxer.

Always consult with your pharmacist before choosing any product intended to relieve muscle pain. Your pharmacist will provide advice, taking into account the type of pain, situation, your state of health and other medication that you may be taking.

Arthritis pain and muscle pain are different in several ways, but have one basic similarity: they both hurt. You know you will continue to be a Good Samaritan, so you should start developing the proper steps to prevent muscle pain today and know what to do when it does occur. This way, your friends can count on your help for many years to come!  

Read more on the subject

L’arthrose : Quand bouger devient compliqué

Osteoarthritis: when moving gets complicated

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Pleins feux sur la polyarthrite rhumatoïde

Spotlight on rheumatoid arthritis

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Living with osteoarthritis

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