There are varying schools of thought as to whether muscle soreness is a blessing or a curse. For some it may signal affirmation of muscle growth, but for others, pain is just pain.
Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
It is important to distinguish between what is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness versus soreness due to serious injury so that you can make an assessment on seeking medical attention.
As defined by the American College of Sports Medicine, DOMS is a delayed soreness that usually starts to develop 12 to 24 hours following exercise where the pain may be greatest between 24 and 72 hours from the time the activity was performed. ACSM provides examples of activities known to lead to DOMS; strength-training, walking downhill, jogging, step aerobics and jumping. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
ACSM explains that “DOS appears to be a side effect of the repair process that develops in response to microscopic muscle damage.” The muscle tissue breaks down, the body naturally repairs itself and then builds up protection against damage in the future. Ultimately, with the proper protein intake and recovery periods, the muscle grows stronger.
When it is time to seek medical attention
Examples of signs that a physician should be consulted include pain that is incapacitating, swelling that grows severe or urine that becomes dark.
Note that DOMS is in contrast to pain that appears while exercising, which may indicate an issue with the activity itself such as overstretching a muscle, using poor form or performing the exercise incorrectly.
Exercising with soreness
Assuming the soreness you are experiencing falls into the DOMS category rather than an injury, evaluate the severity to guide you in pushing forward with the same routine, a modified version or a different activity.
Try shifting to low-impact aerobics such as a swim or brisk walk. If your upper body is sore, do a few lower-body routines and vice versa. Move away from the weights for a day or two, and exercise with a light-resistance flat band. When used properly, bands can be quite efficient in toning and shaping the body. Or perhaps go through some of your usual weight lifting moves without the weights. The movement alone will still keep you stretched in the interim while you give your body a chance to recover. Then start back up with lighter weights, and work up to where you were.
These alternate exercises should not impair recovery, and increasing the blood flow to your muscles may help to combat the soreness. Most importantly, listen to your body, avoid the temptation of sacrificing form for repetitions, and discontinue any action that worsens the soreness.
Stretching, warming up and cooling down
There are varying opinions about the value or detriment of stretching in terms of whether or not it prevents or alleviates soreness. A 2011 study published in Pub Med, concluded that “Stretching before or after exercise does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness.”
However, make a glissade through any gym, and query fitness enthusiasts about pre-workout stretching. Most likely, you will discover that some religiously stretch prior to workouts to warm the muscle, cautioning that exercising a cold muscle leads to soreness. Some favor a good stretch following a full workout. Others routinely stretch before and after. There are exercise videos that demonstrate a warm-up and then a stretch in between each set of weight lifting, followed by a final cool-down.
Home remedies for soreness
The age-old question of whether to apply heat or cold depends on whether you have soreness or a true injury. Ice is typically recommended for injuries because it inhibits the accumulation of blood that produces inflammation and swelling. Aching muscles benefit from heat, which has the opposite effect, drawing blood flow to the area along with oxygen and nutrients to stimulate the healing process. Another option is alternating between heat and cold for 20 minutes at a time, which seems be the strategy of choice for many professionals in the physical therapy and training fields. Some sufferers find relief from yoga, an easy bike road or a massage.
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