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What Causes Muscle Soreness?

By KD Morgan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Muscle soreness usually comes from overextending ourselves in activities or sports we are not accustomed to. It can happen while we are actively participating in the exertion, as when we sprain, strain or tear a muscle and feel immediate pain. This form of muscle soreness has a sudden and specific onset of pain that occurs during the activity. Bruising and swelling often accompany this type of injury.

Pain during exercise can also be caused from a spasm, which inhibits arterial blood flow, preventing sufficient oxygen supply to the area. This is known as claudication and can be experienced as cramping or muscle pain in the lower leg. The pain will subside with rest. The most common cause of mild to intermediate claudication is this spasm, which restricts the blood flow to the artery. More severe cases can be the result of atherosclerosis or a complete blockage of an artery. This is an indication to get immediate medical attention.

For mild to moderate conditions of claudication, rest is the best treatment for the pain. Walking or swimming is recommended before resuming the activity, as this will increase stamina while allowing the body to rest with low-impact exercise. Low-dose aspirin, statin drugs or blood pressure medication are commonly prescribed to help alleviate the condition. An immediate pain relief for muscle cramping of the lower leg or foot is to lower the heel to stretch the back of the leg to encourage blood flow and oxygen supply.

More commonly, muscle soreness is a delayed response that occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercising. It is referred to as “delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)” or “muscle fever.” It generally lasts from two to three days, depending on severity.

There are several professional opinions as to the cause of DOMS. Often it is attributed to the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. However, lactic acid disperses quickly so should not attribute to pain experienced several days later. On the other hand, it is a well-known fact that taking extra calcium immediately after strenuous exercise will reduce or eliminate the typical DOMS pain.

Another theory is muscle contractions, experienced during any downward motion such as running downhill, going down stairs, lowering weights, squats or push-ups can cause soreness. These movements can cause microscopic tears in the muscle tissue. This results in pain, stiffness and swelling.

Others hypothesize that this muscle soreness is not the result of microscopic muscular fiber breakdown itself, but the repair process, which builds stronger and larger muscles. This is called hypertrophy. They believe the adaptation cycle of muscle soreness, the consequent required rest and hypertrophy are indicators that the bodybuilding regime is successful.

Many believe that regardless of the cause, an inflammatory environment is created through strenuous activity. Elevated white blood cell counts confirm this theory. This is another argument for taking extra calcium as it will alkalize and soothe these inflammations. The agreed upon pain relief treatments for these conditions are stretching before and after exercising, alternate ice and heat compresses, elevating the area, massage along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Vitamin C, antioxidant supplements and homeopathic remedies such as Arnica montana, Rhus toxicodendron and Sarcolactic acid have proven useful.

It is best to follow a routine that gradually increases the intensity of your workout. You should maintain a level that increases no more than ten percent per week. Rest, swimming and light walking are excellent options for your body during the time it needs to rest, heal and rejuvenate. As with any condition, the best treatment is prevention.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By SauteePan — On Sep 01, 2010

BrickBack- I agree with you. I like swimming especially when I have lactic acid muscle soreness due to weight lifting.

Weight lifting is an exercise activity that causes one of the most injuries as well as workout muscle soreness. Not keeping proper form and lifting weight that is heavier than you are accustomed to usually causes sore muscles after a workout.

The best thing to do in reducing muscle soreness is to rest and avoid further aggravation. Sometimes when I get calf muscle soreness, I try to do calf raises where I stand on my tip toes and the roll my heel back. This is what I do when I have muscle soreness.


By BrickBack — On Sep 01, 2010

Sunny27- I agree. I use Heat sometimes and it really helps.

It is also a good idea to focus on non impact exercises like walking or swimming like the writer suggests because these activities do not cause you to bear additional weight on your joints.

Water aerobics is also effective because the water acts like a natural shock absorber and does not hurt your muscles or joints. These are ideal exercises for reducing muscle soreness.

By Sunny27 — On Sep 01, 2010

The best way to combat sore muscles after a workout is to do static stretches. Stretching really should be done before and after a workout, but at this point, you should try to stretch the muscles slightly in order to help with the exercise muscle soreness. Stretching really shows you how to avoid muscle soreness.

If the pain is more significant consider applying muscle rub so that you can receive some relief.

Muscle rub can be found in any drug store. The way that it works is that it applies heat to the affected area which numbs the pain and thus eliminates the pain momentarily.

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