What’s the Difference Between Pain and Muscle Soreness?

July 28, 2016

You’ve mustered up the motivation to get in your daily movement, and it’s going great—you’re squatting like it’s no one’s business, you’re getting your heart pumping with The Superman, and you’re feeling like you can conquer the world (and your can’t) until—OUCH—something hurts.

Do you keep going or give it a rest? The answer to that question lies in the difference between pain and muscle soreness. People often get these two sensations confused, which can result in increased pain and severe injuries as folks take on the misguided “no pain, no gain” mentality perpetuated by the fitness industry.

Knowing the difference between pain and soreness is absolutely essential to your health, wellness, and fitness future, so let’s break ‘em down.

The first important distinction to make when comparing pain and soreness is the cause, because it’s very different for each one.

What causes muscle soreness?

Muscle soreness is an inevitability of most any exercise, especially exercises that are new to you and your body. Think of mild soreness as your body’s way of telling you, “Hey! Do you feel that? That’s me making you stronger.”

That’s because soreness comes from microscopic tears to your muscle fibers as a result of physical activity. Pumping iron and cardio sessions put more strain on your body than it experiences during the rest of the day, and these tears are your body’s way of adapting. When the tears heal, your body is stronger and better equipped to take on more weight than it was before.

If soreness is your body telling you to keep going because you’re getting stronger, then pain is your body letting you know it’s been injured and needs a break.

What causes pain?

Pain comes from the inflammation your body produces to heal itself after an injury. It can be caused by myriad problems such as overtraining, poor form, bearing too much weight, and a general lack of body awareness. But no matter the cause, one message remains consistent when it comes to pain: stop what you’re doing.

So, how do you know if you’re experiencing pain or muscle soreness?

The good news is that once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to separate the good hurt from the bad hurt.

Muscle soreness feels like a dull ache that typically occurs within 24-72 hours after exercise, also called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Unlike pain, soreness is often relieved with gentle movement and stretching, so you’re encouraged to keep mild movement on the agenda if you’re somewhat stiff and sore.

Pain, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. It feels much sharper than soreness, and frequently occurs during, or immediately after, your workout. If you continue to move and stretch while you’re in pain, chances are the pain will intensify and the injury will become worse.

In short, soreness is generally a mild to moderate ache that you often won’t feel until the next day, while pain is a sharp OUCH that lets you know right away (or soon after a workout) that something’s wrong.

Now that you know the difference, what can you do about them?

There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from pain and reduce muscle soreness.

If you haven’t worked out in a long time and are just getting back in the saddle, the soreness you experience now is likely fairly intense because your body hasn’t adapted to the new movements yet.

But don’t let that stop you! As you continue to move and exercise, your soreness will drastically reduce as your muscles adapt and strengthen.

So, one of the biggest tools you have in your arsenal to combat muscle soreness is simply to keep moving.

Not only will continual movement reduce soreness in the long-term, but it does so in the short-term as well. Many people find that if they’re feeling stiff and sore from a workout, engaging in some light exercise and gentle stretching makes them feel considerably better.

Ice, foam rollers, a good night’s sleep, and regular massages will also help to ease discomfort from soreness, so next time don’t hesitate to scoop up that massage Groupon--it’s for your health, after all.

When it comes to pain, the prescription is very different. Namely, you do not want to keep exercising while you’re injured. Not only will it be increasingly painful, but doing so will put you at a high-risk of making the injury worse.

To prevent pain, steady warm-ups, quality movement, and post-exercise stretching will go a long way to avoid injury, so consider these things just as important (if not more so) than the exercise itself.

If you do find yourself in pain, the absolute best thing you can do for your body is to see a physical therapist. But while you wait for that appointment, the age-old RICE method can make you more comfortable. Please be advised that this is only helpful for managing pain from minor injuries; it is not a healing solution.

RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

Rest - avoid any movement that puts strain on the injury. For example, if you sprain your ankle, you’ll want to avoid walking or putting any weight on that foot. Rest until it no longer hurts to use or put pressure on it.

Ice - ice will help to minimize swelling and inflammation around the injury. The sooner you can get ice on it, the better. Ice the injury at regular, 20-minute intervals during the first few days that you’re experiencing pain.

Compression - compression is another method that helps reduce swelling. Most convenience stores will have elastic bandages, trainer’s tape, or compression braces you can purchase to relieve pain.

Elevation - yet another way to keep swelling at bay is through elevation. Keeping the injured body part above your heart puts gravity to work at reducing inflammation.

Now that you have a handle on the difference between pain and soreness, give one of these awesome workouts a try!



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