Athletes, fitness buffs and novices alike all know the saying: “No pain, no gain.” To some extent, this is true.
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But how do you know if the pain you feel after exercise is a normal or positive sign of the work you’ve done, or whether you have actually done something to seriously injure yourself?
It can be hard to know in every case, but you can learn some things to look for to help you know the difference between pain stemming from working your body in a healthy way, versus pain that results from injury.
For example, according to acupuncturist Thuy Kim Nguyen, DAOM, LAc, it’s common for weight training and cardiovascular activities to stress our bodies in a positive way. These activities condition our bodies and enhance our strength and endurance.
“By pushing our physical boundaries, we can perform at our best,” she says. “This almost always comes at the cost of feeling some level of pain. But it’s a different kind of pain than the kind that tells you something is wrong.”’
Dr. Nguyen discusses the difference between pain you need to be less concerned about and pain you shouldn’t ignore.
Pain you shouldn’t worry about
Good pain, or the “burn” when you lift weights
“Good pain,” believe it or not, does exist. The most common type of good pain is the “burning” muscle pain most often felt while performing an exercise such as weight lifting.
The burning sensation resolves immediately when you put the weights down. It is caused by the buildup of lactic acid, a natural byproduct produced by your muscles.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
DOMS is really just soreness after working out your muscles. It is the common pain described as a generalized ache that begins a few hours to a couple of days post-workout.
DOMS is often experienced when you begin a new exercise that the body is not accustomed to, or if you have increased the intensity of your workouts.
Injury to muscle fibers and connective tissue, only seen under a microscope, occurs due to the stress of the exercise — which is the culprit for this generalized ache.
DOMS typically resolves within a day or so and does not impede your ability to perform normal daily activities or movement of your limbs and joints, Dr. Nguyen says.
When to see a doctor for post-exercise pain
According to Dr. Nguyen, while there are instances when you can anticipate pain as a result of exercise, make sure that you pay attention to it’s duration, or if it changes from dull to sharp, aching to throbbing, or similar. If it lasts longer than a couple days after workout, see your doctor.
You should always be cautious about pain, especially if it is severe or persists afterwards because serious injuries could be a culprit, Dr. Nguyen advises. These include a stress fracture or tear, or they can be signs of other health issues. If it’s something more serious, medical attention will be needed.
“If you aren’t sure, always err on contacting your doctor,“ she says.
Pain you should never ignore
There are many kinds of pain that indicate something else could be wrong. Don’t ignore any of the following types, and definitely see your doctor if your pain:
- Decreases your range of motion— Sharp pain that prevents you from moving a body part, decreases your range of motion, or prevents you from moving altogether.
- Is in an area of a previous injury or surgery — Pain in areas where you’ve already gone through a procedure or treatment may be a sign that something is triggering another problem in that area.
- Is associated with deformity or massive swelling — Any time something looks different than normal, you should consult a doctor.
- Does not go away despite care — If you don’t experience relief after several days of rest, ice or over the counter anti-inflammatory medication, call your doctor.
- Is constant — If pain never stops or worsens in severity you should always have it looked into.
- Involves pressure and bruising — Scan to see if this happens at all, especially if it happens frequently. Often bruising is a sign of another problem that needs medical attention.
- Is intense — If pain is so intense that it causes nausea and/or vomiting, see your doctor.
- Is associated with fevers and chills – There are many illnesses that can be implied if pain is accompanied by fever and chills, and these often need to be treated with medical attention.
“If you experience any of these pains, you should seek treatment from a medical professional,” Dr. Nguyen emphasizes. “The sooner you resolve an issue with pain, you may be deterring further injury — and the sooner you can get back to being your healthier self.”