Not all sore muscles are alike, as you might have discovered after a particularly grueling workout. Your legs are, after all, in constant use, so you might feel the pain a little bit more strongly than if other parts of your body felt pain. If those muscles are really sore -- the way they get if you've, say, blown them out doing leg presses or other exercises that put the hurt on you from the thigh down -- you may be in search of relief.
Heat and Cold
It's common knowledge to apply heat or ice to relieve sore muscles, but which is best? There's a lot of confusion (and debate) on the subject but the answer seems pretty straightforward: Either will do.
In University of New Mexico research, 100 men and women were induced with leg muscle soreness by doing three rounds of squats, with each round lasting 5 minutes. Afterward, they were divided into three groups. The first received no therapy and experienced a 24 percent loss in muscle strength. Those receiving hot and cold therapy showed only a small drop -- 4.5 percent -- in muscle strength. The study found that heat works slightly better right after exercise, while cold shows some advantage at 24 hours. For more intense muscle spasms, alternating the two in 20-minute sessions may help the muscle relax.
Massage might seem like an expensive luxury, but if sore leg muscles are slowing you down, a massage can help you get back to productivity much more quickly. Massage increases blood flow to muscles, relieving tension in the fibers and reducing inflammation, likely the cause of much of your suffering.
However, there's nothing written in the sky that says you can't massage yourself. Self-massage through foam rolling can address trigger points and other snags in your musculature, as well as stimulate the lymph glands. Use a foam roller to massage your hamstrings, glutes and calves. The American Council on Exercise recommends rolling the muscle slowly over the foam roller, searching for "hot spots." Instead, give those tender spots a little extra pressure and you may experience myofacial release.
There are numerous strong-smelling ointments and balms containing substances like camphor, menthol or capsicum -- ingredients called counter-irritants -- that are applied topically to sore or injured muscles. They're widely believed to increase blood flow to the area, and maybe they do. But they actually work because the ingredients cause inflamation in the area surrounding the pain point, eliciting a hot or icy sensation from the nerves around the area that's in pain. That sensation distracts you from the pain. Do not apply heat to an area that's been rubbed with a balm. The combination could cause a burn or rash.
There's nothing wrong with going to medicine cabinet to treat sore leg muscles, but it's helpful to know your over-the-counter pain medicines. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may reduce some of your discomfort, but it doesn't reduce inflammation, which is the source of most muscle soreness . More effective are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin. These meds can be a bit rough on the tummy, so be sure to take them with food.
- ACE Fitness: Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Massage
- Consumer Reports: How to decide on whether a topical treatment Is right for your
- JAT: Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures
- J PHarm: Alternative therapies useful in the management of diabetes: A systematic review