Muscle pain can stop you in your tracks and interfere with your daily routine. We isolate the causes and how best to deal with them.
It’s an all-too-familiar scene: you go to bed feeling great after an energetic session at the gym, and wake up the next morning convinced you’ve been run over by a train.
There’s a name for this hell you’re experiencing – it’s called muscle pain and you’re bound to experience some form of it at some point in your life, whether you’re a gym enthusiast, or not.
Have you ever wondered what causes the different types of muscle pain and what you can do to relieve it? Health365 spoke to two experts to find out.
Exercise-related muscle pain
According to South African physiotherapist Catherine Chambers, delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), as described in the scenario above, typically occurs a day or two after physical exertion. Your muscles will feel sore and stiff – so much so that you may have trouble climbing a flight of stairs.
“It’s mostly felt after you begin a new exercise routine, change your usual exercise routine, or dramatically increase the intensity of your exercises,” Chambers explains.
DOMS is mostly associated with eccentric muscle contraction – in other words, during exercises where the muscle lengthens (e.g. lowering a dumbbell). This differs from concentric muscle contraction, during which the muscle shortens (e.g. when raising a weight during a bicep curl).
Read: How to do a dumbbell shoulder press
The pain is a result of microscopic tears in the muscle fibres, which eventually lead to greater stamina and strength as the muscle recovers, explains Connolly et al. in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2003).Hence, it’s usually experienced after a session of strength (weight) training that involved resistance in the form of, for example, a dumbbell and repetition of movement.
According to these researchers, the injury itself is a result of damage to the muscle cell membrane. This sets off an inflammatory response that causes a sensation of pain – a warning signal that you’ve overworked the muscle.
“The amount of discomfort and pain can’t be accurately predicted, but a rough guideline could be that DOMS will peak anywhere between 12 to 48 hours [after exercise], and subside by 72 hours,” according to another South African physiotherapist, Dani Gabriel.
Chambers assures us that, while the discomfort of DOMS may be alarming to someone who joined a gym for the first time, it’s simply the body’s natural response to physical exertion.
Even though there’s little one can do to help alleviate the symptoms, it will wear off in a couple of days.
Is there anything you can do to ease the pain in the meantime?
Yes. While you may not want to see the inside of a gym during this time, low-grade exercise can help alleviate stiffness. In fact, findings of a randomised controlled trial, published in the 2009 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, shows that moderate exercise can help relieve DOMS as effectively as a massage or an ice pack.
Help for muscle strain
In general, a tough workout merely causes a bit of discomfort and stiffness the next day, and no real harm.
But sometimes overloading a muscle during exercise may result in an injury to the area – so much so that the muscle fibres stretch or tear, resulting in pain, swelling, spasms and the inability to contract the muscle (produce force) effectively. This is called a muscle strain.
If you experience a muscle strain, it’s best to follow the PRICER method for muscle care:
Protect: Protect the injured tissue against further injury by applying compression bandages, elastic wraps or simple splints. Consult your doctor for problems that require precision splints or casts.
Rest: This is important, even if you rest in stages. You may have to give up tennis while your serving shoulder recovers, but you can still walk, jog or hike.
Ice: It’s the cheapest, simplest, yet most effective way to manage injuries. For the best results, apply an ice pack for 10 minutes as soon as possible after an injury or exercise. Do 10 minutes on and then 10 minutes off. Repeat the ice treatment each hour for the first four hours, then two to four times a day for the next two to three days.
Compress: Pressure will help reduce swelling and inflammation. In most cases a simple elastic bandage will suffice; it should be snug but not too tight. Remember that swelling may develop slowly (sometimes hours after your injury), so you may have to loosen the bandage.
Elevate: It’s a simple strategy that enlists the force of gravity to drain fluid away from injured tissues, reducing swelling, inflammation and pain.
Rehabilitate: This includes soft-tissue release, gentle stretching and massage of the affected muscle by a health professional (e.g. a physiotherapist)
Non-exercise muscle pain
It should be noted that delayed-onset muscle pain can also be caused by a wide range of everyday activities such as gardening, home repairs or even the simple act of lifting your toddler into your arms.
Read: Why do my muscles ache the day after exercise?
“Non-exercise pain is more common than you realise and can be worse if you’re unaccustomed to the activity. The person’s levels of fitness and/or stress and their general fatigue levels can contribute to the degree of discomfort felt,” says Chambers. “For instance, if you don’t exercise regularly and then lift heavy objects or even spend the entire day gardening, you’ll feel the effects the next day.”
Even sitting in a static position that you’re not used to, such as when you’re breastfeeding your child for the first time, can result in muscle pain.
This kind of muscle pain also sets in a day or two after any physical exertion that goes beyond what your body is accustomed to. “While the exertion isn’t as intense as a gym workout, it’s still a form of muscle loading, or overloading, depending on how demanding the physical activity is and how accustomed you are to the activity,” says Chambers.
How to relieve non-exercise muscle pain
If you’re experiencing non-exercise muscle pain, it’s still best to follow the PRICER method.
Apply the PRICE method, as described above. If the muscle pain persists, or worsens, contact a physiotherapist to help with the R (rehabilitation) part of the method.
A medical professional may need to be consulted if medication is required.
IMPORTANT: Although rare, muscle pain can sometimes be a sign of something more serious. If none of the methods mentioned in this article bring any relief, you should work closely with your medical professional to identify the underlying cause.
- Catherine Chambers; MSc
Physiotherapy UCT, BSc (Med) (Hons) Exercise Science
- Lesala Mampa,
BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy UCT, Movement Sciences and Applied Physiotherapy Lecturer
Connolly, D.A.J., S.P Sayers, and M.P. McHugh. Treatment and prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness. J. Strength Cond. Res. 17(1):197-298. 2003.
- Pain Science.com
- Dani Gabriel (BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy UCT)
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Acute Effects of Massage or Active Exercise in Relieving Muscle Soreness: Randomized Controlled Trial)
- MedLinePlus: Muscle Aches
- Health24: Sitting Pretty