How to Prevent (and Relieve) Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

How to Prevent (and Relieve) Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). You’ve almost certainly felt it, even if you didn’t know its official name.

You wake up the morning after an especially tough workout and feel extreme muscle soreness. Not just that familiar “burn” to signal that you’re exercising well. This is so bad it’s hard to move around. No wonder some people call it “post exercise muscle fever” because your arms and legs can actually feel weak and sick.  

Well, here’s the good news: DOMS is most often a normal reaction to any unfamiliar, intense exercise. The pain can hit shortly after you finish the workout, but it’s called “delayed” because it usually starts the following day. (Sometimes even two days later.) And whether you do nothing at all about it, or desperately look for delayed onset muscle soreness relief, the pain typically lasts between 24 and 72 hours.

Why does delayed onset muscle soreness happen?

High intensity exercise can cause tiny, microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Your body responds to this assault with inflammation. It’s that combination – the muscle damage plus your body’s reaction to it – that causes the pain.

Think of it this way: muscles rebel when you make them work harder the usual. Or when you overuse them for the first time.

How extreme does exercise need to be for delayed onset muscle soreness to happen?

Nobody seems to have a simple answer to this question, but experts do know that “eccentric exercise” can often cause delayed soreness. That’s when you tense a muscle at the same time you lengthen it.

A bicep curl is a perfect example, because it combines a controlled, downward motion (tension) with the effort to straighten your forearm (lengthen).

Other common eccentric exercises include downhill running, long distance running, and long jump landing drills.  

Is delayed onset muscle soreness genetic?

Maybe. Some people are definitely more inclined than others to experience DOMS; and to feel the pain more intensely. This has convinced many experts that heredity may play a role, at least it might predispose you to DOMS.

Who’s most likely to get delayed onset muscle soreness?

Exercise newbies are very susceptible. After all, their muscles have not yet been pushed to high performance levels. So if you’re just starting to work out, or returning after a long period of relative inactivity, DOMS is likely to occur.

But even elite athletes can suffer DOMS, if they decide to push themselves especially hard. That’s why so many professional players like to cross-train and vary their workout routine, to develop and constantly maintain total body muscle strength.

Is delayed onset muscle soreness bad for you or dangerous?

Not usually. In fact, DOMS can be a signal that you’re making your muscles stronger. Despite everybody’s wish for immediate results, well-toned muscles don’t develop overnight. DOMS is telling you that you are working hard, and there will be a payoff down the line.

Just knowing that can help a lot of people work through those painful few days without getting discouraged.

Plus you can expect less tissue damage, less soreness, and faster recovery with each subsequent workout – as your muscles get used to what you’re asking of them.

Do experts know how to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness?

Many say they do. But there’s a lot of disagreement on exactly how to protect yourself.

The most popular tip is to maintain adequate hydration. Anytime your muscles work harder than usual, they need extra oxygen. They get that oxygen from  blood pumping around them. And about 82% of your blood volume is actually water.

So drink more water! It ensures that lots of richly-oxygenated blood will make it to the muscles that need it. That should at least help minimize DOMS.

One study finds that men who exercise in hot, humid temperature experience a lot less muscle soreness when they drink before, during, and after exercise. 

It might also be helpful to add a warm up and cool down phase to every workout. Try 20 minutes of low-to-moderate-intensity cycling before and after exercising. If cycling doesn’t appeal to you, consider jogging or even brisk walking.

What are the best ways to relieve delayed onset muscle soreness when it happens?

The truth is, time is the best treatment. You must give your muscles time to repair themselves.

But there are some things you can do to get relief, while you wait for nature to take its course.

Take a warm bath. Warmth applied immediately after intense exercise has been shown to offer delayed onset muscle soreness pain relief. So try heat wraps. Warm tub bathing (around 130 degrees Fahrenheit) can also help. For extra relief, add 2 cups of Epsom salts to the water. The magnesium in the solution will be absorbed through your skin, helping to reduce soreness and improve muscle function. One word of warning: don’t let the water get too hot because that can actually make the pain worse.

Some athletes and even trainers advocate cold bathing, even bathing in ice water to relieve DOMS. Actually, there’s recent scientific evidence that this won't help – and may even delay recovery. So ice at your own risk. 

Apply a topical pain reliever. Research shows that menthol-based remedies  can offer fast relief for delayed onset muscle soreness. Just apply directly to the areas that hurt. You should feel the difference within a minute or two. And if you chose a chemical-free menthol formula, you can safely apply as often as needed. 

It’s interesting to note that over-the-counter pain relievers (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen) have been found fairly ineffective at helping DOMS. Plus, they can even pose health dangers. So it’s probably best to avoid them.

Get a massage. A relaxing massage is another popular pain relief strategy (though some studies contradict the idea). One 2017 review of several studies found that people who got a massage 1 to 3 days after an intense workout reported significantly less DOMS. Fans of this approach say that a light massage is best. It will feel good, ease inflammation, improve blood flow, even reduce muscle tightness and swelling. You might want to apply some light oil or lotion and try massaging your own calves, thighs, shoulders, or biceps.

Sleep more. Muscle-building chemicals like Human Growth Hormone are naturally produced by your body when it’s in deep stages of sleep. Even more to the point, too little (or disturbed) sleep is thought to make pain worse. So aim for a minimum of 7 hours to really help your muscles recover and adapt to the new exercise demands you're starting to place on them.

Move around. Of course it’s tempting to lay on the sofa as you withstand that burning pain, but experts say that active recovery is one of the most effective ways to reduce DOMS. It might be painful to start, but after a few minutes, when the blood gets flowing and the muscles get warmed up, you’re probably going to feel better. Go for low-intensity movement (for example, gentle yoga, walking, or swimming).

The worst thing to do is ignore the pain and put your muscles through another tough workout. You’ll risk an injury, and not just to the muscles that are already sore. DOMS makes you use your muscles differently. You can end up compensating and straining muscles that shouldn’t be involved in certain movements or exercises. Without meaning to, you make them vulnerable to injury, too.

Is delayed-onset muscle soreness ever the sign of an actual injury?

Even when the pain is extremely uncomfortable, it’s generally not the signal of an injury. Nevertheless, the discomfort shouldn’t be so bad that you can’t perform your normal daily activities. If it is, contact your doctor. 

What’s the takeaway?

Although DOMS is very uncomfortable, it’s rarely the sign of a serious injury. Your muscles need time to rest and recover from the unexpected work you’ve put them through. So take is it easy, opting for light activity that will actually help you feel better sooner. Take advantage of simple home remedies that have serious research to back them up. And, of course, if the pain sticks around longer than a few days, contact you doctor. Working together, the two of you can monitor for any real strains or sprains.

Take care. Stay well.
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