When is It OK to Push Through Pain During Exercise?

Decide whether it’s simple soreness or something more serious
When is It OK to Push Through Pain During Exercise?

It’s a question pondered at times by weekend warriors, body builders and recreational athletes alike: “Should I push through the pain?”

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Sports medicine physician Dominic King, DO, has an answer that helps cut through abundant and often-conflicting advice:  “A certain low level of soreness is acceptable, but you should not push through pain while exercising.”

Getting sore

When you have pain that is a feeling of soreness or achiness, it’s usually the result of mild inflammation, or microtears in your muscles or tendons, Dr. King says.

The muscle repairs these tears when you’re resting, and this helps muscles grow in size and strength. This microtrauma may sound harmful, but it is your body’s natural response when your muscles experience work.

This kind of acceptable pain might occur when you start a new exercise or go back to an exercise you haven’t done in a while. You feel some achiness that lasts for a few days. This kind of soreness diminishes after you rest.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is another acceptable type of pain, Dr. King says. It develops a couple of days after intense exercise. DOMS normally lasts three to seven days, then gets better.

It’s all right to exercise if you are experiencing this kind of pain, Dr. King says. Physical activity might even help to ease the achiness.

“There is, however, a very fine line between gaining results through building muscle and causing damage,” Dr. King says.

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Persistent pain

But strong, sharp or persistent pain that develops while you are exercising is a different matter.

“Pain represents injury,” Dr. King says. “It occurs as a result of overuse or too much stress placed on a muscle or a tendon. It can be the result of repetitive use or a single episode of overloading a muscle or tendon. That’s muscle strain.”

Pain during physical activity is a signal that you are putting too much strain on a muscle or tendon and should stop, Dr. King says.

“People used to say you need to ‘suck it up,’ or just push through the pain. They’d say you need to keep going to get results. But pain is your body trying to tell you something, and you have to listen,” Dr. King says.

Give it a rest

The cornerstone of treating muscle soreness is rest, but it’s also important to move and maintain your range of motion as much as possible.

Applying ice and heat definitely can help, as can judicious use of anti-inflammatory medicines.

“However,” Dr. King says, “inflammation is your body’s way of healing injuries. So you may not want to halt that inflammation entirely.

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“If you have to ice often or take medications frequently, this may indicate an unacceptable type of soreness that should be evaluated by a physician,” he says.

If soreness or pain is significantly affecting your daily activities, causing noticeable weakness, persists for several weeks to a month or continues when you are resting or interrupts sleep, it is time to see a doctor, Dr. King says.

Start low and go slow

Stretching before and after exercise and staying well-hydrated can help you avoid muscle strain. But the absolute best way to avoid reaching the stage of unacceptable pain is to start low and go slow, Dr. King says.

That means you start at a very low intensity and duration and slowly ramp up your time and effort to build endurance.

“If your daily job and daily activities do not involve flipping tires and grabbing large ropes, then that is probably not how you should start out with an exercise program,” Dr. King says. “Instead, give yourself plenty of time to reach your fitness goals.”

The start-low-and-go-slow approach goes for cardiovascular exercise and weight training, and every type of exercise in between.

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