Listen to Your Body When Pain and Stiffness Strike After Exercise

How to handle exercise-induced soreness

Listen to Your Body When Pain and Stiffness Strike After Exercise

After months off, you decide to hit the weight room. You put in a full three rounds of bench presses and feel great. Until pain and stiffness progressively pervade your chest muscles. Then every movement brings pure misery — so much that you can barely move the affected area.

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You can expect exercise-induced muscle soreness when you perform an unfamiliar physical activity for an extended time without a gradual ramp-up. This is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.

DOMS also can happen after exercise in which you are contracting your muscles at the same time you are lengthening them, says orthopedic surgeon Mark S. Schickendantz, MD. This can happen, for example, if you run downhill. The result is tiny tears in the muscles.

Unfortunately, no treatment yet has been shown to actually reduce the length of time that muscles remain sore and weak. Ibuprofen or alternating hot and cold packs may help to ease pain temporarily, Dr. Schickendantz says.

If you do develop DOMS, avoid strenuous exercise until you are no longer sore, Dr. Schickendantz says. The good news is that the soreness typically goes away in a day or two on its own.

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To avoid DOMS in the future, increase the duration or intensity of your workout routine gradually, Dr. Schickendantz says.

When to see a doctor

DOMS can be annoying and uncomfortable. However, it is important to make sure the pain and tightness you’re experiencing is not associated with something more serious, Dr. Schickendantz says.

Symptoms of possible structural injury that merit consultation with a physician include:

  • Sudden, sharp pain
  • Pain that keeps you up at night or wakes you from sleep
  • Pain that does not go away within 24 to 48 hours

If the pain is in your knee, seek medical evaluation for limping, swelling in the joint, pain with weight bearing or walking, and inability to straighten the leg.

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If the pain is in your shoulder, nighttime pain and the inability to raise the arm over the head also merit a physician’s attention.

You should consult a physician before starting any fitness program or team sport to make sure you have no underlying problems that could lead to injury, Dr. Schickendantz says.

Your physician also can offer guidance on how to gradually build up to a full routine with minimal exercise-induced soreness.

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