Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise

Medical and fitness professionals call post-exercise muscle soreness "delayed onset muscle soreness," or DOMS.

It's a common complaint of many athletes, but also of anyone who puts their muscles to harder use than they're used to. The condition stems from exercise-induced muscle damage, or inflammation of the muscle as a result of microtears of the muscle fibers.

DOMS sets in the day after hard exercise (typically after a night's sleep) and peaks from 24 to 72 hours before subsiding. Symptoms can include muscle soreness, swelling, and stiffness. Severity can range from annoying to painful.

Treatment focuses on reducing inflammation and allowing the sore muscle to heal properly. Some treatments recommended for muscle soreness have a scientific basis, others do not. Even those commonly used by athletes may not have been well studied, but athletes swear by them.

Here are some common treatments and the rationale for their effectiveness.

Rest

leg pain
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The simplest and most reliable treatment for sore muscles is rest. Most people with muscle soreness will improve with no specific treatment within five to seven days. Many active people, particularly competitive athletes, won't like to rest this long, so some simple activity known as "active recovery" can be helpful.

Active Recovery

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Getty Images / Christopher Futcher

Active recovery means performing less intense exercise while recovering from an aggressive workout. It's also helpful to do a different activity than what you did to get sore. Examples: Aerobic activity like running or swimming at a lighter pace.

Active recovery stimulates blood flow to the muscles and may help reduce muscle pain while maintaining an athlete's conditioning. The key is "light" and not doing further damage to damaged muscles.

Ice

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Treating inflammation with ice application is common and most effective when initiated in the first 48 hours of exercise-induced muscle soreness, and probably less effective thereafter.

Cold water immersion (ice bath) has also become a common recovery method for athletes, with some research showing it to be effective against DOMS.

Massage

Physiotherapist massaging womans leg
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Massage is thought to stimulate blood flow to sore areas and diminish swelling within the muscle.

One technique that many athletes enjoy is ​foam rolling, a type of self-massage where the athlete uses a high-density styrofoam roll to place body weight pressure on the muscles for a type of myofascial release. Many athletes find this relaxes and stretches affected muscle groups.

Gentle Stretching

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Recent studies have shown that stretching probably does not make a difference in most athletes in preventing or reducing muscle soreness. That said, many athletes find that a stretching routing is their key to quick recovery, and there is no evidence that stretching is harmful or contributes to muscle soreness. If you want to try some gentle stretching, it may help, and probably won't hurt.

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

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Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen will help relieve some of the discomforts of muscle soreness, but will not affect the length of time needed for muscle recovery. Early administration of anti-inflammatory medications may bring the best results.

Heat

Sock Heating Pad
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Heat application can help relax a tense, stiff muscle. When participating in active recovery, heat application before exercise can also help ensure the muscle is warm and loose.

Topical Creams

Woman applying ointment on her arm
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Topical creams include Aspercreme, BenGay, and IcyHot. These medications are called counterirritants and do not actually warm the muscle, but rather cause skin irritation, redness, and warmth of the superficial tissues.

While these topical applications can provide the perception of pain relief, they have no effect on the underlying muscle. The application of these topical creams is fine, but use caution as the medication can be absorbed into the body

Warning: Don't use these products with heat applications as severe skin burns can result.

Smart eating

Research continues to show that what you eat can have positive effects on muscle soreness. Examples:

  • Caffeine an hour before a workout and the day after may help reduce DOMS symptoms. Don't overdo it, however. Eight ounces of coffee will suffice.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (fish and fish oil supplements) have anti-inflammatory properties that could decrease DOMS.
  • Polyphenols, antioxidants found in plants, can also deliver anti-inflammatory effects against DOMS. Eat your fruits and vegetables.
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