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Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: No Pain, No Gain?

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Okay, raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the Jane Fonda workout videos from the 1980s? (F.Y.I: My hand is raised.) Clad in big 80s hair, leotards, and leg warmers, Jane and her co-stars coached you through different aerobics workouts while chanting things like, “Feel the burn!” and “No pain, no gain!” While I wouldn’t take all my fitness advice from Ms. Fonda’s videos, she did popularize an idea that has been written and rewritten about since at least the second century – without pain, there’s no gain.

How does this phrase apply to the fitness world? We’re all familiar with that stiff, sore feeling you get the day or two after shoveling the sidewalk for the first time in the winter or your first golf game of the spring or your first swim trip to the lake in the summer. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s a hallmark response of muscles that are becoming stronger in response to a new activity.

No one knows exactly what causes delayed onset muscle soreness, but there are several theories. Microscopic tears in the muscle fibers may be one culprit; this tearing allows the muscles to rebuild larger and stronger (called hypertrophy), as happens in weightlifting. A related thought is that DOMS is due to the inflammatory response of the muscles reinforcing themselves for the next bout of unfamiliar activity; this inflammation puts pressure on nerves, causing pain. Another possible cause (but one that is falling out of favor) is that DOMS is due to the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles as the body converts glucose into energy during physical activity; the acid then takes time to dissipate, leading to soreness.

Despite what Ms. Fonda might say, you CAN avoid delayed onset muscle soreness, but the question is, do you really want to? DOMS is a cue that you’ve challenged your muscles, and they’re responding with increased strength and endurance. Muscles that do only one activity quickly get used to it; they’re no longer challenged by the work out. That’s why so many professional athletes swear by cross-training (training routines that involve many different types of exercise). DOMS is also a quick, positive indication of progress, which can be helpful for those who need immediate rewards to stay committed to a fitness program (since waiting to actually SEE the muscle grow can take weeks).

Of course, you shouldn’t confuse the stiff, sore feeling of delayed onset muscle soreness with the symptoms of an actual injury. DOMS involves mild to moderate pain that usually goes away within seven days. But if you experience sudden or severe pain, feel a popping or tearing sensation, have unusual swelling or bruising, can’t complete your daily activities due to pain, or aren’t better within seven days, see your doctor or physical therapist – you may have injured yourself.

Even though it’s generally a sign that you’re moving in the right direction with your fitness program, delayed onset muscle soreness isn’t always fun, so it’s a good idea to learn how to minimize these symptoms. 1) Start new activities slowly, and be realistic about your abilities; if you’ve spent the winter as a coach potato, don’t think you can jump right in on the first 5K race of the season without prior preparation. 2) Stretch before and after activity; this helps to relax muscles and avoid cramping. 3) Utilize temperature therapy; heat loosens sore muscles before a workout, and ice packs reduce pain and inflammation afterwards. 4) Take an over-the-counter pain reliever if approved by your doctor. Your physical therapist is another great resource to help you deal with DOMS. Depending on your needs, your treatment may include electrical stimulation, exercise modification, and manual therapy.

Though not always fun, delayed onset muscle soreness is a sign that you’ve taken a step towards a healthier lifestyle. Learn to minimize this pain, and you may just maximize your physical gains.

Don’t let pain keep you from getting in shape. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Pain Assessment!

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