Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise

Muscle soreness after exercise is a common complaint of many athletes. The medical name for this condition is delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, and it is thought to be due in large part to inflammation of the muscle as a result of microtears of the muscle fibers.

Treatment of sore muscles after exercise is focused on reducing the inflammation and allowing the sore muscle to heal properly. Some treatments recommended for muscle soreness have a scientific basis, others do not. Some are commonly performed by athletes, and may not have been well studied, but have many high-performance athletes that swear by these treatments. Here are some common treatments and the rationale for their effectiveness.


leg pain
Jeannot Olivet / Getty Images

The simplest and most reliable treatment for sore muscles is rest. Most people with muscle soreness will improve with no specific treatment within 5 to 7 days. Some simple activity, known as 'active recovery,' can be helpful during this phase of treatment.

Active Recovery

Getty Images / Christopher Futcher

Active recovery means performing less intense exercise during the recovery phase from an aggressive workout. Active recovery can be beneficial both as a 'cool-down' from a hard workout or as a recovery in the days following a hard workout. Active recovery stimulates blood flow to the muscles, improves circulation in the muscles, and helps reduce muscle pain.

Ice the Muscles

icing a shoulder
nolimitpictures / Getty Images

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

Consider Massage

Physiotherapist massaging womans leg
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

There have been some studies that demonstrate a benefit of massage in the treatment of muscle soreness. Massage is thought to stimulate blood flow to the area and to diminish swelling within the muscle.

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

Gentle Stretching

stretching with exercise ball
microgen / Getty Images

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 can't hurt.

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

Sigrid Gombert / Getty Images

Anti-inflammatory medications will help relieve some of the discomforts of muscle soreness, but will not affect the length of time for recovery of the muscle. Early administration of anti-inflammatory medications is most helpful.

Heat Application

Sock Heating Pad
Tetra Images/Getty Images

The application of heat can help relax a tense, stiff muscle, and should be considered when recovering from delayed onset muscle soreness. When participating in active recovery, heat application before exercise can ensure the muscle is warm and loose.

Topical Creams

Woman applying ointment on her arm
Eric Audras / Getty Images

Topical creams include Aspercreme, BenGay, and IcyHot. These medications are called counterirritants. These medications 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 effects on the underlying muscle. The application of these topical creams is fine, but use caution as the medication can be absorbed into the body, and these should not be used with heat applications as severe skin burns can result.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources