You finally made the decision to get in shape. You met with your trainer and had your first workout session. All good things, right? Almost. Because now it hurts to move. Muscles you didn’t even know existed are sore, and it’s hard to even get out of bed.
Delayed onset muscle soreness, called DOMS for short, typically occurs within 24 to 48 hours after exercise. But don’t be alarmed. Though uncomfortable, it’s completely normal. The strain of pushing your muscles harder than usual causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. The tears plus the resulting inflammation bring on the pain and soreness. In addition to soreness, some people also experience swelling, stiffness, tenderness, and reduced range of motion.
Before you regret your decision to exercise, remember that soreness is a good sign. It means your muscles are being challenged and getting stronger. Though the pain should only last one to three days as the tears heal, there’s no way to speed recovery. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to relieve your symptoms.
The inflammation caused by the small tears may initially benefit from cold therapy. Icing the affected sore muscles helps dull the pain by reducing blood flow to the area. Apply a cold compress or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth to the affected muscles for 20 minutes every four to six hours for three days or as needed. If you’re sore all over and if you can tolerate it, sit in a cool bath. Keep in mind that ice isn’t a good idea for back pain or for muscle spasms.
While ice is the best initial treatment, heat therapy helps muscles relax. Rather than limiting blood flow, heat increases blood flow to the muscles to aid healing. Heat is also soothing and calming after a tough workout. Types of heat therapy include use of a heating pad, heat wrap, warm compress, or a hot bath. Apply heat for 20 minutes several times a day unless you’re using a heat wrap, which can be used for up to eight hours.
If you thought a back rub felt good, wait until you have DOMS. Even if it’s your child who’s rubbing your back, you won’t want the massage to ever stop. In the first 24 hours after soreness begins, it’s best to avoid deep-tissue massage, but gentle massage is perfectly safe. Some studies have shown that gently massaging sore muscles helps reduce swelling and alleviate DOMS pain by 30 percent.
A fourth tried-and-true way to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of DOMS is using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers. If the soreness is hampering your normal activities, take ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen as directed. These medications are specifically designed to reduce swelling and inflammation in the body, so they’ll target the swelling surrounding the tiny tears in your sore muscles.
An ancient form of medicine, acupressure can be used to relieve the pain of muscle soreness. Unlike acupuncture, which uses needles, acupressure uses finger pressure on tender points. Acupressure can be an effective means to relieve tension, reduce pain, and increase circulation.
It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but light exercises are one way to work out muscle soreness. However, pushing yourself too hard through DOMS may lead to injury, so take it easy until the soreness lessens. Try gentle stretches, walking, or swimming to keep your muscles moving. If it’s just your legs that are sore, focus on arm exercises or vice versa.