Spring is here! As the valley is blooming and days are getting longer, energy levels tend to be on the rise. What a great period to get active! You are happy to be back on your bicycle, on the running trail, going for long walks or hitting the gym…until muscle soreness hits.
What is happening? Do I just have sore muscles? Or is it something more serious? Do I need to see a medical professional? That’s a tough call. But here are some guidelines to help you understand your soreness. And decide how to proceed.
The fancy term used for having sore muscles after starting a new sport or working out really hard is “DOMS.” It’s an acronym for “Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness,” and can happen after you perform a physical activity that you are not used to or through certain types of muscle contractions (usually eccentric). And yes — it can even make it painful to laugh and make it hard to get around. The origins of this type of soreness are complex but it is a well-studied phenomenon. One of the most common misconceptions is that it is due to an accumulation of lactic acid, but it has been proven wrong. The generally accepted theory is that the soreness would be from microscopic damage to the muscles and that the lactic acid isn’t part of the process. Everybody is susceptible to developing DOMS. However, the severity of the soreness tends to lessen as your body adapts and the activity is performed on a regular basis.
So what does DOMS feel like? It is usually a dull, aching pain in the muscle and it can be accompanied by some stiffness and tenderness. It usually appears 24 hours post exercise, is known to peak after 24 to 72 hours and shouldn’t last more then a few days (three to seven days maximum).
Often the symptoms will lessen during activity but will likely reappear after the exercise, during that three-to-seven-day period. Light activity should not impair your recovery. However, if you find that your symptoms are making the activity too painful or difficult to perform, it is advisable to refrain from this specific activity until the symptoms subside. Pain occurring during an exercise may signal a problem with the exercise you are performing (is it too intense? Is the technique used appropriate)?
If you experience a sudden onset of pain in a specific area or a snapping, clicking or popping accompanied by pain, you should stop exercising. A sharp, burning, numbing, tingling, shock-like pain is not a normal pain to be experienced during or after an exercise.
Can I do anything to avoid it? Yes! One of the key components in any physical activity program is progression. Progressing slowly into a new activity, or progressively getting back into an activity after the winter is crucial. It allows your muscles to adapt and is likely to help minimize the severity of DOMS…and minimize your risk of injury! Even if it is not proven to be effective in preventing DOMS, a proper warm-up is essential before any physical activity. You should do an activity that allows your body temperature to rise for 10 to 15 minutes before any strenuous activity.
So, after reading all of this and if the pain you are experiencing doesn’t sound like DOMS, do not wait to check in with your physiotherapist. They can assess your condition and determine your injury. Then plan proactive treatment, so you can pursue your activities safely and optimize your performance!
Virginie Pichard-Jolicoeur is a physiotherapist at North End Spine & Sports.