Why Do Your Muscles Get Sore After Exercise?

I think we have all experienced that well known feeling of stiff and sore muscles following exercise. Two days after getting back in the gym a flight of stairs can feel like an almost insurmountable challenge. The soreness you are experiencing is called DOMS which stands for ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’. You may get DOMS if you’re starting a new exercise regime or increasing the intensity or length of your workout. But what is actually going on inside the muscle to cause this feeling? Is it dangerous? And, once you have DOMS, what can you do?

What causes DOMS?

The answer is we still aren’t 100% sure. When I studied Osteopathy many moons ago we were taught that lactic acid build up within the muscle was the cause. We now know that this isn’t the case. If you google DOMS you’ll see a whole host of blogs suggesting it is caused by micro tears in the muscle and that the subsequent inflammatory healing response is the cause. The issue is that this theory is based on some very poor research. Unsurprisingly, understanding DOMS is an extremely low priority in medical science so the evidence for what causes it is often poorly funded. This means that, despite what you may read, the reality is we still don’t really know what causes DOMS as it isn’t a huge priority.

There is now some early evidence that it may actually be your body reacting to a substance released by the muscles in order to stimulate nerve growth in response to your increased activity although this research has only been done in rats so its far too early to say if this is true. My first thought when reading this research was how would you even know if a rat has DOMS?

Who gets DOMS?

Literally everyone, even elite Olympic athletes. It’s not necessarily a sign that you are unfit; it’s an indication that you have increased your exercise intensity or performed an activity that your body isn’t used to. If Usain Bolt were to hula hoop for an hour, it’s possible even he would get DOMS 🙂

Is it dangerous?

No. Even though we aren’t quite sure what causes it, it doesn’t seem to have any lasting negative effect. When you are actually experiencing DOMS, your muscles may be weaker, so I would avoid any intense exercise until you recover as it’s possible your chances of injury will increase but you can still exercise moderately.

If the pain becomes really intense and there is any swelling along with darker coloured urine then I would speak to a health professional reasonably quickly. This may be a sign that you have a condition called Rhabdomyolisis which is also caused by intense exercise but the symptoms progress beyond the normal DOMS experience. Rhabdomyolisis is where your muscles’ cells actually experience cell death and the by-product of this process then clogs up your blood stream. It used to be quite rare but it’s becoming more common with the increase in popularity of high intensity workouts. I personally know of one person who had to spend five days in Lewisham hospital on a drip following a very hard cross-fit session and comedian Eddie Izzard famously experienced it when attempting to run 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa in 2012 so if you train hard it’s wise to be aware of the symptoms. If you have any of the above signs then please see a health care professional without delay.

Can you avoid it?

There is only one sure way to avoid DOMS and that is to build up your exercise level gradually. Doing this gives your muscles a chance to get used to the new demands you are placing on them gradually .Before doing any exercise, make sure you warm up your muscles properly. Following exercise, also cool down well with some stretching. This won’t directly reduce DOMS but it will help prepare your muscles for future exercises.

How can I treat DOMS?

There’s no one simple way to treat DOMS. Nothing is proven to be 100% effective but the following may help ease some of the symptoms:

Ice pack or ice bath
Some research has suggested that a dip for 10 minutes at six degrees can reduce the symptoms of DOMS, whilst also improving the range of motion after an intense bout of exercise. An ice bath may not be that appealing or practical, so you could try easing the soreness with an ice pack instead. Wrap it in a towel first though so you don’t apply it directly to your skin.

Compression garments
These are items of clothing that fit tightly around your affected arm or leg; so you might wear a sleeve for example, if the muscles in your arms are sore. It’s thought that compression increases the blood flow and reduces muscle inflammation, which can reduce the effects of DOMS.

A massage will help loosen up your tight muscles and improve circulation to ease your DOMS. It should also speed up your recovery and lower your chance of injury by ensuring your muscles are in the best shape possible

All of these methods will help reduce it to a degree but nothing gets rid of it completely I’m afraid. Once you have it you just have to grit your teeth and push through. The upside is that once you have experienced it with that particular form of exercise you are much less likely to experience it again if you keep the exercise up!

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