A bit of muscle soreness following exercise is normal and results from pushing yourself beyond your normal levels during a workout. Typical muscle pain results from small tears that occur in muscle tissue during exercise. When exercisers overwork themselves, like at the beginning of the season when they are out of shape, they are susceptible to extreme muscle soreness. However, worse than regular post-exercise pain, delayed onset muscle soreness -- DOMS -- requires special treatment and time to heal before returning to your workout.
DOMS is a serious condition, characterized by severe muscle pain, swelling and weakness. If overworked arm muscles are affected, sufferers can be too sore and weak to even brush their teeth. The pain generally peaks within 24 to 48 hours after exercise and subsides within four days. Muscle weakness begins within 48 hours and resolves within five days. Muscle swelling and stiffness from DOMS usually peaks within four days following exercise and disappears within 10 days. Each symptom is independent and you can experience one or several during your bout with the condition, explains Len Kravitz, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico. Returning to your normal workout before the symptoms of DOMS subside and your muscles stabilize can result in dangerous muscle and joint injury.
While intense and prolonged exercise is associated with DOMS, eccentric rather than concentric exercise is most directly responsible for the painful condition. During eccentric movement, when muscles lengthen -- such as when lowering your arms during biceps curls -- muscles experience the most strain. Possible causes include the buildup of lactic acid in muscles, connective tissue damage, muscle spasm, enzyme release or possibly a combination of these potential causes.
Medical professionals recommend several treatments to alleviate the intense pain, fatigue and limited range of motion experienced by DOMS sufferers. While no single treatment is viewed as definitive, several different treatments can potentially bring relief and restore normal muscle function. Stretching and low-intensity exercise done for short intervals is recommended. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs, taken as soon as pain is experienced can reduce swelling and soreness. Massage can also relieve DOMS symptoms. Suggested but unproved treatments include electric current, ultrasound and cryotherapy.
Warm-up exercises that slowly increase body heat improve muscle function and flexibility and reduce the chance for injury. In his article, “Treating and Preventing DOMS,” Kravitz reports that gradually introducing eccentric exercises, slowly increasing the intensity during a six-week period, has been found to reduce DOMS. Most importantly, pain is a sign that something is wrong and exercise experts agree that you should never try to work through any pain you experience during exercise.