Muscle soreness – we’ve all experienced it here and there. Sometimes, we simply have a hard time getting out of bed, going up the stairs, or putting on clothes. In some cases, we know exactly what led to how we are feeling but in certain cases, the cause might not be that obvious. There are many reasons why someone might experience muscle soreness. To learn more about the causes and ways how it can be avoided, keep on reading.
What is muscle soreness?
First of all, it’s important to note that there are different kinds of muscle soreness.
Acute muscle soreness or AMS is a type of muscle soreness that people feel during and immediately after strenuous exercise. On the other hand, there is muscle soreness that begins after a workout known as delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
Acute muscle soreness occurs during a workout or within 24 hours after it. Also known as immediate muscle soreness, it resolves quickly and is not felt for days after exercise. The pain is often described as a burning sensation in the muscles.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness, on the other hand, usually starts a day or two after working out and is not felt during exercise. The pain typically peaks 24 to 72 hours after a workout and begins easing after that. The symptoms of DOMS can include muscles that are tender to the touch, swelling of the affected muscles, reduced range of motion, muscle fatigue, and short-term loss of strength. Anyone can experience delayed-onset muscle soreness, including beginners, professional athletes, and people that haven’t exercised in a long while, meaning that your level of fitness does not play a role here. When you perform eccentric exercises or new types of exercises that your body isn’t used to or you dial up the intensity of your workouts, DOMS can appear.
You should also know that one type of soreness does not exclude the other, so it’s possible to experience both. However, there are ways to minimize soreness and relax your muscles.
Finally, it needs to be said that AMS and DOMS feel global, in a way that they affect the whole leg, glutes area, or some other body part. If the pain is more focused and tends to last for a week or more, it is best to visit a physician as you could be facing an injury.
What can cause muscle soreness?
Reasons why one can experience muscle soreness are various. While exercise is the most common culprit, you should be aware that muscle soreness can be a symptom of various other health issues that you need to tend to.
When it comes to AMS, one of the reasons why people feel a burning sensation is muscle fatigue. The muscle gets tired and cannot contract any longer. If the muscle’s functional unit – the sarcomere – is strained and degraded, it triggers the body’s inflammatory response and results in the acute pain connected to AMS. The repair process of the sarcomere and the connective tissue surrounding it leads to delayed-onset muscle soreness. So, if you have been working out extra hard, you might have pushed your body past its limits and that is why you are in pain.
Dehydration is another reason why people might experience AMS. While this is still a theory, it could be that the extracellular fluid compartment contracts because of excessive sweating and causes muscle contractions that result in pain. While more research should be done, researchers postulate that dehydration leads to increased soreness. It is thought that water flushes out waste that is associated with soreness from our bodies.
High lactate levels
Our bodies prefer getting the energy necessary for exercise through oxygen but in some cases, the energy has to come from glucose. During the latter scenario, our bodies create a substance called lactate. When the levels of lactate are high, there is an increase in the acidity of the muscle cells, which slows down our bodies. It might seem odd that a system that provides us with more energy also reduces our capacity to work but this is actually a defense mechanism that is used to prevent permanent damage to the body from too much exertion. While it was thought that lactic acid buildup is responsible for delayed-onset muscle soreness, this theory was actually disproven. Quite on the contrary – it was established that the production of lactate results in the burning sensation linked with AMS.
When it comes to delayed-onset muscle soreness, high-intensity workouts are the most common cause. It can happen when you up the intensity of your exercises and when you try some new workout that your body is not used to as you are working on a different group of muscles. In addition to exercise, any other strenuous physical activity can have similar effects on your muscles, such as carrying heavy boxes when moving homes, pulling heavy bags when gardening, or something similar that requires repetitive muscle movements. During these types of exercises, you are making microscopic tears in the fibers of your muscles.
On the other hand, there is a variety of other reasons why someone’s muscles might be sore even if they haven’t been working out. For example, one of the symptoms of the flu is muscle ache. Overall fatigue and achy and sore muscles are some of the first symptoms that appear when a person gets the flu. Fever and cold symptoms are other things to watch out for. So, if you’ve been around someone who has the flu or in crowded places, you might have caught a virus. Plenty of rest and lots of fluids are always recommended when fighting the flu while you can also visit your doctor to see whether they might prescribe some anti-viral medication.
Infectious mononucleosis or simply mono can be another cause of muscle soreness. This contagious infection that is also referred to as “the kissing disease” is typical among teenagers but people of all ages can get it. In addition to muscle weakness and fatigue, high fever, swollen lymph glands, headaches, night sweats, and a rash are other symptoms of mono. As the symptoms are similar to the flu, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. While the symptoms resolve in one to two months in most cases, it’s best to contact a doctor if the condition worsens. In the meanwhile, stay at home and do your best to avoid passing mono to others.
While mono and the flu can lead to a fever, chills, and body aches, they are not the only health issues that have such symptoms. If you’ve been outside and there is a chance you’ve been bitten by a tick, you might have Lyme disease which is also accompanied by these symptoms. However, a symptom that is unique for Lyme disease is a rash with a bullseye pattern around the bite spot. If you notice a rash, see a doctor immediately. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics but the diagnosis is not always easy. If you don’t react on time and wait to start treating it, you might develop other symptoms such as joint pain, meningitis, and muscle weakness, and experience further severe complications.
Perhaps you suffer from fibromyalgia, a chronic condition associated with chronic fatigue syndrome. This condition results in muscle, joint, and other soft tissue pain. It can also cause anxiety and depression, and lead to sleeping issues. You might not yet be diagnosed so pay attention to sustained tiredness and lack of energy. If you experience these symptoms, you should visit a doctor. While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, exercise and prescribed medication can decrease the intensity of the symptoms.
How can muscle soreness be avoided?
Even though you might not be able to completely prevent muscle soreness, there are some measures you can take to make it less intense. Consider the following tips.
We mentioned earlier how dehydration can result in acute muscle soreness. In order to avoid an unexpected end to your training sessions, make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day and drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout. Get a reusable water bottle and ensure it is always full and within reach when exercising.
Getting enough protein
Seeing as how protein is vital for building and maintaining muscle, you need to ensure you are getting enough of it. While eating protein on a regular basis is important for everyday functioning, you should up your intake after a workout to avoid recurring or long-lasting soreness. Protein needs vary from person to person but there is no need to go overboard. People who exercise regularly need somewhere from 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Split the necessary amount of protein between your meals during the day. Protein sources abound so it should not be difficult to come up with a meal plan that suits you.
Eating anti-inflammatory foods
More research needs to be done but there is evidence that suggests that antioxidant-rich foods help relieve muscle soreness. For example, watermelon is rich in L-citrulline, an amino acid that can reduce muscle soreness and recovery heart rate, according to research from 2017. Furthermore, ginger, pineapple, and cherry juice are all anti-inflammatory foods that show promise when it comes to treating muscle soreness.
Various kinds of supplements can also help reduce the pain of DOMS and speed up the recovery process. For example, antioxidant supplements such as fish oil and curcumin have amazing benefits. Then, you can also consider creatine supplements that can regulate the amount of lactic acid in the body. The good thing about supplements is that they come in various shapes and forms, meaning that you can choose those that you prefer. Regardless of whether you prefer mixing them into shakes and smoothies or taking them as pills, you will be able to find a way to supplement your diet and reduce muscle soreness.
Warming up before exercise is another way how you can prevent pain later on. You should avoid static stretches aka stretching a muscle to the point of discomfort and holding that position for some time. Instead, do some dynamic stretching five to ten minutes before you start your workout. Dynamic stretching is a kind of stretching where you constantly move your joints and muscles as that prepares your body by improving your flexibility and blood flow as well as increasing your heart rate. Arm circles and walking lunges are just some of the exercises to start with.
It’s important to not stop exercising all of a sudden. Set aside 20 minutes or so to cool down after working out. For instance, you can do some low-intensity cycling to decrease soreness in the quadriceps muscle. Then, while static stretching isn’t advised before a workout, it can be helpful afterward. Even though it will not lessen delayed-onset muscle soreness, it can boost joint and muscle flexibility.
Heating and icing
Some people prefer ice while others think heat helps them more – you can do what feels good for you. However, if you combine the two approaches, you might benefit the most. First, you can apply heat in various forms including wet heating packs, warm damp towels, and warm baths, as moist heat has shown to offer more pain reduction than dry heat. Then, you can switch to cold therapy by applying an ice bag or frozen veggies. However, a cold bath might be the best method. Remember to never apply ice directly to your skin.
Take it easy
Finally, in order to prevent AMS and DOMS, you need to take it slow. Ease into your workouts and don’t take them to the next level before your body is ready. Only increase the intensity once you feel that you are properly prepared. That will not only make sure you build strength and endurance but also help you lessen the muscle soreness you will feel during and after the workout.
Even professional athletes sometimes feel sore so don’t feel too bad when you start experiencing soreness in your muscles. DOMS should improve over time and, as your body adapts to the exercises you are doing, you will be in less pain.