Could muscle or back pain indicate leukaemia?

Muscle or back pain is a lesser known sign of leukaemia. Find out more about what might make this common ailment a warning sign for the blood cancer

What is musculoskeletal pain?

Musculoskeletal pain refers to any pain in the muscles, joints, tendons, bones or structures that support the limbs, neck or back. It is commonly the result of physical trauma, or a chronic condition such as osteoporosis or arthritis. However, sometimes these aches or pains can be the sign of a more serious underlying condition such as leukaemia. Although bone pain is the most common of these symptoms in leukaemia, according to our patient survey, muscle pain or back pain can precede a leukaemia diagnosis in 11% and 13% of cases, respectively.

What causes back pain or muscle pain in leukaemia?

Back pain

Leukaemia occurs when cancerous white blood cells form in the bone marrow and start to divide uncontrollably. It is this build-up of cancerous white blood cells that causes the bone marrow to expand in size and put pressure on nerves within the bone tissue, causing bone pain. Sometimes, these cells can form masses near the nerves or joints in the spinal cord, leading to back pain. Occasionally, this will result in damage of bone within the spine making vertebrae at a greater risk of fracture and collapse.

 “Isabella, following a sneeze, started to scream. Whilst in Italy visiting family, we went to A&E and, following an MRI, we discovered she had 4 vertebrae broken.”

Muscle pain

An overcrowding of cancerous, leukaemia cells in the bone marrow can also cause anaemia by preventing the bone marrow from efficiently producing red blood cells.  A deficiency of red blood cells means there is less oxygen being carried muscles around the body, causing muscle cramps and aches. Some types of leukaemia or myeloproliferative diseases can impair blood flow to the legs, causing pain in the feet or leg muscles.

As well as this, anaemia causes muscles to become weaker than usual, making them more prone to injury.

“I also had a mysterious problem with my shoulder/arm, which led me to being in a sling, later considered to be because I pulled my muscle easily due to my anaemia.”

When should I be concerned?

Be cautious if your child keeps complaining of a painful leg or an aching lower back. As well as this, children might develop a limp due to pain in their legs. This is a crucial sign to look out for, especially if the child is unable to talk. – make sure to get a GP to check this this doesn’t seem to be improving over time.

“She said her leg was hurting, patting the side of it. After a week of pain in her leg, I took her to the doctors, but it was suspected she just had growing pains.”

In adults, musculoskeletal pains such as bone pain, muscle pain or back pain, are commonly mistaken for other ailments such as osteoarthritis, and in children or teenagers it can easily be misdiagnosed as growing pains or other orthopaedic conditions such as osteomyelitis. For this reason, it is especially important to push for a blood test while at your GP if you or your child is also presenting with any of the other symptoms of leukaemia.

Knowing what other symptoms are typical of leukaemia is crucial for helping you to make the decision to visit your GP sooner for a blood test. Connect the dots between the symptoms of leukaemia and spot leukaemia sooner.

For information on the other symptoms of leukaemia, click here.


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