Muscle soreness is a common side effect of exercise. When people aren't accustomed to this soreness, it can discourage them from exercising again. It's a natural condition, however, and in most cases there's no cause for alarm.
What Causes It?
It's normal to experience muscle soreness after exercising, especially in these cases:
- You've performed an activity you're not used to.
- You've suddenly boosted your exercise intensity level or increased the length of your workout.
- You've engaged in an activity in which you lengthened your muscles, such as walking downhill or extending your arm during a bicep curl.
Such changes to an exercise routine can lead to tiny injuries called microtrauma in the muscle fibers and connective tissue.
Microtrauma causes a condition called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOM), which peaks within 48 hours and then usually gets better.
Is It Serious?
In the days following intense exercise, muscle cells repair and regenerate themselves and grow stronger in preparation for performing the activity again. After this recovery process, the muscles function more efficiently and are more resistant to damage. This process is known as adaptation.
Muscle soreness generally isn't serious, doesn't need medical attention and goes away by itself. But if pain comes on quickly and feels intense, you may have injured yourself. Call your doctor if the pain is severe or lasts for more than a few days.
Why Does It Increase with Age?
If people don't regularly stretch their muscles and joints as they age, they lose some of their movement potential. With prolonged disuse, muscles become shortened and produce spasms and cramps that can be irritating or extremely painful.
When you feel a cramp or ache, you can experience a splinting reflex, in which your body immobilizes a muscle by making it contract. The sore muscle can then set off a vicious cycle of pain. One of the most common sites for this problem is the lower back.
Treating Sore Muscles
When nursing sore muscles, people often wonder whether they should use heat or ice. According to most experts, indirect ice works best for immediate relief. Try applying ice to the sore area first to reduce inflammation; then apply heat to increase blood flow to the area.
If you suffer from sore muscles occasionally, you can take non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin to relieve the discomfort. Acetaminophen is another over-the-counter option for pain management. But be cautious about using these drugs regularly. Long-term use can interfere with your muscles' ability to repair themselves.
Preventing Sore Muscles
To prevent soreness, warm up before exercising and stretch afterward. It's also wise to ease into your exercise routine by starting with lighter exercises and then building up.
A couple of natural substances have been touted for preventing muscle soreness, including antioxidants like vitamin C. Serious exercisers might find relief from post-workout soreness by beefing up on protein. One study found that taking protein supplements reduced soreness after intense exercise.
What matters most, however, is that you exercise regularly. Once your muscles grow accustomed to exercise, soreness will be minimal.