A Not So Painful Review of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness After Exercise
When it comes to exercise, you may have heard the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” While there’s some truth to this, there’s a fine line between post-workout soreness that leads to stronger muscles and pushing so hard that you severely damage your muscles.
Walking this line between pain and incapacitation, though, is more than just luck and willpower. To survive, you need a solid understanding of what causes pain after exercise (aka delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS).
With this not so painful review of this important exercise concept, you will be able to work out smarter and know what’s the right amount of pain after exercise.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
There are two types of pain associated with exercise—the kind that happens during your workout and the soreness you feel after you’ve left the gym.
Let’s deal with the first kind, because it’s the one that is most likely to get you into real trouble. If you feel pain during exercise—such as while doing a bench press or squats—it’s a sign to back off or even to stop.
This kind of pain can be caused by bad form or even by working too far beyond your capacity. If you feel this, take a break and check in with what you are doing—or ask an exercise professional to help you. You may need to modify how you’re doing the exercise or switch to a less strenuous workout until your body is ready.
Unlike the pain that happens in the middle of a workout, pain later on is not always bad. In fact, this type of delayed onset muscle soreness is a sign that you are working your muscles hard enough to encourage positive changes.
DOMS generally sets in 12 to 24 hours after physical activity, with the greatest pain occurring between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.
What Causes DOMS?
Any physical activity that places new kinds of loads on your muscles can cause delayed onset muscle soreness. This includes walking or jogging down hills, step aerobics, resistance training or jumping.
The common factor with delayed onset muscle soreness is that it occurs when the muscle lengthens while a force is being applied (aka eccentric muscle action). You’ll see this type of action when the arm is lowering during a biceps curl or while the thigh muscles are lengthening as you walk or jog down a hill.
The exact underlying cause of delayed onset muscle soreness is not known, but most exercise physiologists think it happens when tiny tears develop in the muscles. This, along with related inflammation, causes the pain that you feel later on.
Most importantly, this type of tearing occurs when the muscle experiences stress that it’s not used to—a new type of exercise, or more repetitions or greater force during a familiar activity.
That means anyone can experience delayed onset muscle soreness, both people new to exercise and experienced athletes.
What are the Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
Besides the most obvious symptom of DOMS—muscle soreness—this condition can also cause:
- swelling of the affected limbs
- stiffness in the joint supported by the muscles, along with a short-term decrease in its range of motion
- tenderness in the area
- decreased muscle strength that lasts for a few days
- increased level of the enzyme creatine kinase (CK) in the blood (this is a signal of damage to the muscle)
- breakdown of the muscle that may affect the function of the kidneys (rare and only in severe cases).
Most cases of delayed onset muscle soreness don’t need to be treated. Your body will take care of itself during recovery. You should seek medical help, though, if you experience any of the following:
- pain that is so extreme you can’t function normally
- severe swelling in the limbs
- dark urine, which may indicate problems with the kidneys.
How Can I Prevent DOMS?
It may be impossible to prevent all muscle soreness during exercise. You can, however, reduce the pain by working your way slowly into new exercises. This can be done by starting out with fewer repetitions and smaller weights, and gradually increasing those as your body adapts.
You should also build recovery time into your workouts to allow your muscles time to heal. In addition, be cautious when doing the same activity multiple days in a row.
Stretching after exercise, warming up and cooling down are all important aspects of every exercise program, but there’s little evidence that they can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.
Should I Stop Exercising If I’m Sore?
There’s no solid rule when it comes to exercising while you already have DOMS. Sometimes, physical activity can lessen the muscle soreness, although it may return during recovery.
Light exercise shouldn’t hurt your muscles, but too much exercise (especially using the same muscles) can make the symptoms worse. There is, however, no evidence that physical activity will speed up your recovery from delayed onset muscle soreness.
If your symptoms are severe enough that you have difficulty exercising, take a few days off and come back to it when you are less sore. You may also need to start again at a lower intensity than before.
How Can I Treat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
There is little research that shows that any kind of treatment can speed up your recovery from DOMS. Some treatments, however, may reduce the symptoms. This includes:
- applying ice packs to the sore muscles
- tender points acupressure
- over-the-counter oral pain medications
- heat wraps.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that reduced pain does not always mean faster recovery. You may feel better after massage, but your muscles still need time to heal.
One great way to stay active when you have muscle soreness is by using cross-training. This allows you to work other parts of your body while the sore muscles heal. This can be done using alternating days of resistance and cardiovascular exercise, or using an exercise program like INSANITY® or P90X which uses varying exercises.
Being physically active is essential for your long-term health, but it’s important to listen to your body during and after exercise. Sometimes, that means learning to use pain as a guide toward stronger muscles and better workouts.
Do you have muscle soreness? Maybe you even enjoy the feeling of sore muscles after a good workout. Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!