This is what muscle pain from COVID-19 feels like

This article was updated on September 24, 2021

With a larger pool of symptoms that are instructive of SARS-CoV-2 infection, researchers can better assess the frequency that each occurs in confirmed cases. 

Fever and a persistent dry cough are the most reliable indicators of COVID-19, with each affecting  87% and 67% of patients respectively. These figures may change in the coming months as more studies enter review. 

Ultimately, supportive care comes down to parsing through any and all accompanying impairments. 

With any viral infection, discomfort is simultaneously a byproduct of a pathogen’s pathology and our immune systems efforts to fight it. These efforts are expressed via varying degrees of intensity depending on the genetic integrity of the virus in question as well as its host. 

For instance, the body aches associated with 15% of the 56,000 initial COVID-19 cases reported in Mainland, China were likely the result of immune cells releasing infection-fighting proteins called interleukins.

Interleukins contribute to viral clearance by altering the way weakened cells interact with one another. 

A less fortunate portion of carriers experienced intense body sores by reason of rhabdomyolysis, which is a condition that erodes damaged skeletal muscles. Over time this process can result in renal failure if not attended. 

These two potentialities alone demonstrate how body aches have frustrated the diagnostic process and improved it in equal measure. 

Although The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes them as COVID-19 warning signs they’re also linked to a litany of other underlying causes; some banal and some quite serious.

Thankfully,  there are three sure-fire ways to distinguish pedestrian aches and pains from those caused by coronavirus. 

Duration, location and The CDC12 

First, the inflammation that aggravates our muscles when we’re fighting off an infection typically lasts a lot longer than soreness caused by physical exertion; even if they feel similar to each other at first.

When our immune system becomes stimulated we become more attuned to its activity. By and large, pains caused by our adaptive immune response persist for about two weeks. The physical manifestations of this are often sharp and incapacitating. 

“Where you experience the pain can vary, too, ” explained infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in a press statement. “Muscle pain can be a symptom of an injury, stress, or simply working a muscle you haven’t used much lately. If you feel generally OK otherwise, you’re probably not dealing with COVID-19.”

Although coronavirus induced muscle pain is often generalized, a sizable portion of patients experience it in their lower back. 

The vague nature of this potential indicator in particular highlights the utility of the CDC’S twelve-point COVID-19 symptom assessment. 

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Blush lips or face

The presence of one or more of these symptoms elevates the severity of muscle pain just as their absence reduces it. 

Having said that, pain or soreness that lasts longer than two weeks can just as likely be due to an illness as serious as the one behind our current pandemic. Which is to say: be sure to address prolonged aches even if coronavirus has been ruled out as a cause. 

“Most of the time, people get generalized achy muscles that you can have with any kind of viral infection, and it goes away as you recover from the virus,” Dr. Adalja says. “But if it’s focal, meaning it’s just in your leg or other areas of your body, or if your urine gets dark (which can be a sign of kidney damage), call your doctor.”

CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at [email protected]