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How to Relieve Muscle Soreness vs Pain: What's the Difference?

Updated: May 12, 2023

It's easier to take care of your health when you have a better understanding of what's happening with your body and why. Soreness or pain are a regular part of the ebb and flow of physical health and fitness. But what distinguishes them? While soreness is a natural bodily response to exercise, pain is usually the result of injury to a specific region and lasts longer without treatment.

woman on the road during a run experiencing muscle pain

Muscle Soreness or Pain: What's the Difference?

The Cleveland Clinic describes soreness (or delayed-onset muscle soreness) as what usually occurs following regular exercise, while pain is more intense and may require medical treatment. In this article, we dive into the differences between exercise-induced soreness and pain.

What is Muscle Soreness?

Soreness is a healthy response to muscle tearing from exercise, which is necessary to strengthen muscles.

Scientifically, you might hear soreness referred to as “delayed onset muscle soreness” or DOMS. People usually experience this type of soreness following intense exercise due to muscle spasms, inflammation, lactic acid, and other occurrences.

Soreness is usually milder than pain and tends to go away on its own or with changes in exercise regimens. Although you may not be able to completely alleviate your symptoms, there are ways to ease the discomfort.

Some of the things you experience with muscle soreness include:

● Muscles feeling tender to the touch

● An achy or burning sensation

● Discomfort that typically occurs 1-3 days following exercise

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How to Treat Exercise-Related Soreness at Home

1. Switch to exercise that works fewer targeted muscle groups.

If you haven't completed a hard workout in months, chances are that you'll experience soreness after an intense session. Findings at the National Library of Medicine suggest that you can continue to exercise while sore if you focus on other muscle groups during your recovery.

2. Choose shorter and less intense workouts following DOMS-inducing workouts.

The same NIH findings note the effects of reduced intensity and duration during workouts. This advice is most beneficial when you are training daily. For example, if you experience muscle soreness after a 60-minute challenging run or cycling session, try a shorter duration, reduced speed, or lessened intensity.

3. Use a fitness journal to log workout sessions and rest periods.

Try using a fitness planner to organize your workouts and recovery periods. Record when you rest after workouts and for how long, noting how well you recover during each rest period. This method of monitoring exercise and soreness helps you to determine the optimal workout and recovery regimen to reduce soreness and/or pain.

Image of a water bottle, workout top, workout leggings and tennis shoes with a digital fitness journal sitting on top of those things

What is Muscle Pain?

Sharp pain from sore muscles usually occurs at joints and tendons, rather than muscles. It's overall more intense, uncomfortable, and longer-lasting. Exercise-related pain can range from a mild ache to a sharp feeling during physical activity.

Pain seldom goes away on its own. You may need to consider medical assistance, medication (such as ibuprofen), or other treatments.

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How to Treat Exercise-Related Pain at Home

1. Treat inflammation and pain with ice.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Medicine suggest icing areas affected by pain from exercise. You can apply ice following the activity for 20 minutes at a time.

If you experience persistent pain, such as those from acute injuries or something like knee surgery, you may need to incorporate physical therapy into your recovery plan.

But if your muscle soreness and pain are from an intense workout or strenuous exercise, ice should work well on its own to help lower your inflammation. To be sure, speak with a medical professional.

2. Try range of motion exercises or stretches.

Make sure you continue moving and gently stretching after working out to prevent joint stiffness and muscle spasms. You may want to consider physical therapy to help you manage pain.

Your physical therapist can show you ways to work your muscle fibers to work out soreness and pain. If your pain persists past a certain date, you might need to meet with a physical therapy team for one to two weeks—or more—to reduce your discomfort gradually.

It's important to limit your physical activity during this time to that which is recommended by your physical therapist. They know the safest, most appropriate treatment to ensure a healthy and expected result.

3. Try over the counter pain medicine with MD approval.

Robert H. Shmerling, MD of Harvard Health Publishing notes that, while not totally risk-free, ibuprofen and related NSAIDS can temporarily reduce joint pain and inflammation from exercise.

Muscular soreness and inflammation can cause you to experience a burning feeling and dull aches. Medication is useful in helping overcome pain and swelling, so be sure to inquire about the proper type and dose with your medical provider.

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site, including text, graphics, images, and other material, is provided solely for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your specific condition.

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