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Relieving Muscle Pain and DOMS: Tips for a Healthy Recovery

Written By: Mark Cameron

Engaging in regular physical activity is essential for maintaining overall health and fitness. However, intense workouts can sometimes leave us with muscle pain and DOMS, which put our body under discomfort and affect our daily routine. DOMS is not an injury. 


Muscle Pain VS. DOMS 

What is muscle pain? What is DOMS? Muscle injury and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are two different experiences related to physical activity. Here's a breakdown of the key differences: 


Muscle Injury 

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) 


Muscle pain can occur during or immediately after exercise 

DOMS typically develops 24 to 48 hours after intense or unfamiliar exercise 


It is often described as a sharp or acute pain 

A dull, aching soreness in the muscles characterises it 


Muscle pain is immediate and does not typically develop gradually 

A dull, aching soreness in the muscles characterises it 


Muscle pain can result from various factors like muscle strains, sprains, or injuries 

DOMS is primarily caused by microscopic damage to muscle fibers during eccentric movements (lengthening of the muscle under tension) or high-intensity exercise 


It can persist beyond 48 hours and may require medical attention if severe or debilitating 

DOMS usually subsides within 3 to 7 days without medical intervention 

What is the difference between muscle pain and DOMS?

Muscle pain occurs immediately during or after exercise and signals potential injury, while DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) develops 24-48 hours post-exercise, indicating muscle adaptation and strength gains.

General advice on self-help for DOMS

It's important to note that while both muscle pain and DOMS can be uncomfortable, DOMS is a normal response to exercise and indicates that your muscles are adapting and getting stronger. Here is some general advice on self-help for DOMS: 

  • Gradual Progression: When engaging in physical activities that may lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), such as intense exercise or strength training, gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. This allows your muscles to adapt and minimises the risk of excessive soreness. 
  • Proper Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Always include a thorough warm-up before your workout and a cool-down afterwards. An introduction helps prepare your muscles for exercise by increasing blood flow and flexibility, while a cool-down allows for a gradual recovery and helps prevent stiffness. 
  • Stretching and Flexibility Exercises: Incorporate regular stretching and flexibility exercises into your routine. This can help improve muscle elasticity, reduce muscle tension, and alleviate soreness. Focus on major muscle groups and hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds without bouncing. 
  • Hydration and Nutrition: Stay hydrated before, during, and after workouts. Drinking enough water helps maintain muscle function and aids in recovery. Additionally, ensure you have a balanced diet that includes adequate protein, as it plays a crucial role in muscle repair and growth. 

DOMS recovery tips 

If you are experience muscle pain after workouts and DOMS, here are a few tips to help you recover:

  • Rest and Recovery: Allow your body sufficient time to recover between workouts. Rest is essential for muscle repair and rebuilding. Adequate sleep, typically 7-9 hours per night, is also crucial for overall recovery and muscle regeneration. 
  • Active Recovery: Engage in light exercises or activities on rest days to promote blood flow and alleviate muscle soreness. Low-impact activities like walking, cycling, or swimming can help reduce DOMS symptoms. 
  • Massage and Foam Rolling: Consider using a foam roller or a massage to help alleviate muscle soreness. These techniques can help improve circulation, reduce muscle tension, and promote relaxation. 
  • Pain Management: If you experience significant discomfort from DOMS, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can provide temporary relief. However, consulting a doctor or physiotherapist before taking any medication is essential. 
  •  Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to your body's signals. If you feel excessive pain or discomfort during exercise, it's essential to modify or scale back your workouts to prevent further injury or exacerbation of DOMS. 
  • Consistency and Long-Term Approach: Consistency is critical when managing DOMS. Regular exercise and gradually increasing intensity over time can help your muscles adapt and reduce the severity of soreness. Adopt a long-term approach to your fitness journey, focusing on progressive improvement rather than immediate results. 

Remember, while these self-help tips can alleviate DOMS symptoms, it's important to differentiate between normal muscle soreness and acute injury pain. If you experience severe pain, persistent discomfort, or any concerns, it is advisable to consult with a doctor or a physiotherapist for proper evaluation and guidance.

Ensure your body is strong and healthy

Causes of DOMS 

DOMS causes muscular discomfort and pain that arises after engaging in intense physical activity or exercise. While the exact cause of DOMS is not fully understood, it is believed to be a result of several factors working together. Here are some of the proposed mechanisms contributing to the development of DOMS: 


  • Microscopic muscle damage: During strenuous exercise, particularly activities that involve eccentric muscle contractions (lengthening of the muscle under tension), microscopic damage occurs in the muscle fibers. This damage triggers an inflammatory response in the body, leading to pain and soreness. 
  • Inflammation: The inflammatory response triggered by muscle damage plays a significant role in DOMS. It releases various chemicals and immune system cells, resulting in swelling, pain, and tenderness. 
  • Metabolic waste accumulation: Intense exercise can cause a collection of metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid, within the muscles. While lactic acid does not directly cause DOMS, it may contribute to the discomfort and pain experienced. 
  • Muscle swelling: The inflammatory response and fluid accumulation in the muscles can cause swelling, putting pressure on pain receptors and contributing to the soreness associated with DOMS. 

It's important to note that DOMS is a normal response to exercise, especially when starting a new activity or increasing the intensity or duration of your workouts. The severity and duration of DOMS can vary depending on factors such as individual fitness level, the type of exercise performed, and the intensity of the workout. DOMS resolves independently within a few days to a week as the muscles recover and adapt to the new stimuli. 

Symptoms of DOMS  

  • Soreness and Stiffness: Muscles may feel sore, tender, or stiff to the touch. Movement and stretching may exacerbate the discomfort 
  • Limited Range of Motion: Muscle pain can restrict movement, making it challenging to perform daily activities or exercise 
  • Muscle Weakness: Pain in the muscles can be accompanied by weakness or difficulty performing tasks requiring strength 
  • Fatigue: Muscle pain can be accompanied by a feeling of overall fatigue or exhaustion 
  • Disrupted Sleep: Severe muscle pain can interfere with sleep quality, leading to sleep disturbances and daytime fatigue 

Preventing and Relieving Muscle Pain 

  1. Warm-up and cool-down: Always start your workout with a proper introduction to prepare the muscles for exercise and end with a cool-down session to help flush out lactic acid and reduce muscle soreness 
  2. Gradual progression: Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts to avoid overexertion and excessive muscle damage 
  3. Hydration and nutrition: Stay hydrated before, during, and after workouts, and ensure you're consuming a balanced diet that includes protein for muscle repair and recovery 
  4. Rest and recovery: Allow your body enough time to recover between workouts. Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night to support optimal muscle repair 

Is Muscle Soreness a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? 

Muscle soreness can be good or bad, depending on the context and severity. Let's examine both perspectives: 


Good Thing 

  • Indication of Progress: Muscle soreness, particularly after exercise or physical activity, can be a positive sign of progress and adaptation. It often occurs when muscles are subjected to new or increased stress levels, such as starting a new workout routine or increasing the intensity of your exercises. Soreness suggests that your muscles are being challenged and stimulated, which can lead to strength and endurance gains over time 
  • Muscle Hypertrophy: Soreness can be associated with muscle growth and hypertrophy. When muscles are stressed through resistance training, microscopic damage occurs in the muscle fibres. This damage triggers a repair and rebuilding process, leading to more substantial muscles 
  • Motivation and Achievement: Feeling sore after a workout can provide a sense of accomplishment and motivation. It serves as a reminder that you've put in the effort and challenged your body, which can be rewarding and encourage you to continue progressing towards your fitness goals 


Bad Thing 

  • Excessive or Prolonged Soreness: If muscle soreness persists for an extended period or becomes severe, it can be a negative sign. Extreme soreness may indicate that you have pushed your muscles too hard, leading to overtraining or potential injury. It's essential to listen to your body and allow for proper rest and recovery, especially if the soreness hinders your ability to perform daily activities or interferes with your training routine. 
  • Impaired Function: Intense muscle soreness can limit your range of motion and temporarily impair your ability to perform specific movements or activities. If the soreness significantly affects your daily functioning or prevents you from exercising regularly, it can be considered a disadvantage. 
  • Potential Injury Risk: While mild to moderate muscle soreness is generally considered normal, extremely intense or localised soreness may indicate an injury or strain. It's important to differentiate between regular post-exercise soreness and acute pain that may require medical attention. 


The Importance of Healthy Recovery in Relieving Muscle Pain and DOMS 

Always listen to your body, adjust your workout intensity, and prioritise rest and recovery. With these practices in place, you'll enjoy the benefits of exercise while minimising muscle pain and maximising your overall well-being. If you experience muscle pain, seeking physiotherapist help is essential to enjoy a more active, pain-free life. If you are experiencing muscle pain, please consult a doctor or a physiotherapist for help. 

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Topics: Physiotherapy

Mark Cameron

Mark Cameron

Physiotherapist, TPI Certified Instructor