Muscle soreness can mean different things to different people. To some veteran exercisers, muscle soreness is interpreted, in some strange masochistic way, as “proof” that the exercise is effective. This is not correct, of course, because muscle soreness simply means that your muscles are not used to the type or intensity of whatever exercise it is that you are doing. Whether the exercise is effective or not for your desired goal is another story.
Delayed onset muscle soreness: “DOMS”
Muscle pain that appears 12 to 48 hours after exercise is technically called “delayed onset muscle soreness” or DOMS. It is not the same as “immediate muscle soreness”, which is temporary muscle fatigue or the “burn” that you feel while doing the exercise. Immediate muscle soreness goes away as soon as you rest for a little while but DOMS sneaks up on you with a vengeance a day or two later. The pain can be as mild as a general over-all achy feeling or it can be so severe that even the smallest movement like brushing your teeth can make you wince.
Even fit people can get sore muscles
Muscle soreness usually happens when you try a new kind of exercise, when you increase the intensity of an old exercise or when you go back to a familiar workout after having stopped for a long time. In other words, it doesn’t just happen to unfit people. It also happens when a fit person does something their body is not accustomed to.
For example, if a runner were to do a yoga class, he would most likely experience sore muscles. It doesn’t mean the runner is not fit. He just isn’t used to yoga. On the other hand, a strong and flexible yogi will be sore the day after doing a one hour run for the first time.
It is unrealistic to expect absolutely no muscle soreness every time you try something new but you can keep the soreness to a minimum by making conservative increases in the frequency, duration or intensity. If starting a group exercise class, choose the beginner version. Many people get “deadly” muscle soreness (the type where they cannot get out of bed the next day) with kickboxing, yoga, or Pilates because they jump right into advanced classes. If you have never lifted weights
before, start with light poundage and do only one set of one exercise per muscle group. It is when you do “too much, too soon, too fast” that delayed muscle soreness occurs.
Causes of muscle soreness
There have been many theories about why delayed muscle soreness occurs. The most widely accepted theory to date is that it is caused by microscopic tears either in the muscle tissue itself or the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle (similar to the white plastic-looking stuff that surrounds and intersects a piece of beef or pork). This is actually a natural response to exercise and the body adapts by becoming stronger.
As for immediate muscle soreness, scientists believe it is caused when too much lactic acid, a chemical by-product associated with muscle contraction, “irritates” the nerves.
Treating muscle soreness
There have been many experiments to determine the best method of treating delayed muscle soreness. Studies have been done using ice, massage, stretching, anti-inflammatory drugs, and muscle pain lotions. There is still no one conclusive method that has really been proven to treat the condition though some of the methods mentioned or a combination of the methods can help alleviate the intensity of the soreness so you don’t suffer so much. Left on its own, muscle soreness goes away in three to seven days.
Many people also wonder if they can exercise when their muscles are sore. If you have moderate soreness, the answer is yes but keep the intensity light. If your muscle soreness is severe, lay off exercise for a few days.
Distinguishing “bad” pain from muscle soreness
A little delayed muscle soreness is not the same as pain in your joints or pain in your muscles that increasingly gets worse. For your own safety, you should know the distinction between the two. First, you should feel the effort in your muscles but never in your joints. If your joints are aching, there is something wrong in the way you are doing the exercise or it is not an appropriate exercise for you. Second, if the muscle soreness persists after seven days or seems to be getting worse, there is also something wrong and you should go see a sports medicine or orthopedic doctor.
Muscle soreness taken to the extreme
When muscle soreness is taken to the extreme, it can result in a rare but medically serious condition known as “exertional rhabdomyolysis” or ER. In this month’s issue of Idea Health & Fitness Source, Dr. Ralph La Forge explains that ER is a condition “in which muscle fibers break down in response to exertion and release their breakdown products into the circulation”. He writes, “Moderate cases can be triggered by endurance events – triathlons, marathons and basic military training – or by other exercise for which the participant is not well adapted (for example, excessive resistance training)”. He warns that extreme cases of ER can cause kidney failure and, in some cases, death.
Muscle pain, weakness, fever, nausea and vomiting are all symptoms of ER, according to La Forge. But the first clue, he says, is usually dark brown-colored urine. If you experience these symptoms, seek immediate medical treatment, which may include “hydration, diuretics, electrolyte correction, dialysis, and other supportive therapy”.