Muscle pain is an uncomfortable and frustrating and something that can be very painful and unpleasant but which also limits movement. You need your muscles for pretty much everything and so when they become painful, that can make life a little bit difficult.
So, the question then is: what can you do about sore muscles?
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that there are lots of different options to try, meaning you should be able to find something to suit your particular pain.
The bad news is that there are lots of different options to try… meaning it’s hard to know which one to start with.
Let’s start by considering what is causing the muscle pain to begin with.
DOMS stands for ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’. This is the type of muscle pain that you feel after a particularly vigorous workout and it is generally thought to be caused by ‘microtears’ in the muscles.
Microtears occur when you place the muscles under mechanical stress, leading to a desirable form of muscle damage. Here, the fibrous tissue that makes up your muscle will literally get torn by the weight and the stretching, which will release in a flood of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone and then signal the body to begin repairs. These signals are important because they are what cause the body to build itself back up bigger and stronger the next time you train.
However, they also hurt! Even though it’s not entirely clear how microtears lead to muscle pain in the first place (muscle fibers do not contain pain receptors called ‘nociceptors’) but it is still thought to be what is going on.
So, what do we do about DOMS?
Well, what also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and yet actually seems to work, is to move. That’s right: it seems that if you want to know how to treat sore muscles after the gym, actually hitting the weights again might be the answer! This is not to say that you should ignore your body and do a heavy workout, but rather that if you try light exercises with smaller weights targeting the same muscles, you might find that this actually helps you to get rid of the pain faster.
Another tip is to try and prevent the discomfort ahead of time. The best way to do this appears to be to stretch following a workout.
Stretching before workouts is actually not particularly recommended, as this can actually reduce strength in the muscles and even make you more prone to injury. Again, this seems counterintuitive but this is what the most recent research is telling us. That is not to say that you shouldn’t be warming up though! Stretching after training though has the opposite effect and appears to help prevent muscle pain and stiffness.
Other tips include staying hydrated throughout your workouts and considering using isotonic sports drinks which will replenish electrolytes to prevent cramps, spasms and other types of pain.
As mentioned though, when asking how to treat sore muscles, it is highly important to consider first what the cause of the muscle pain is.
The best practices for treating muscle soreness caused by exercise are not necessarily advisable for those suffering from injuries such as strains or tears, so you need to approach these types of problems with a whole different strategy. In other words, when you are injured, it is important not to try and re-use the same muscles!
Instead, rest is the order of the day along with either heat or cool treatments.
A compress of some sorts can be very effective at helping to soothe and numb the pain, while simultaneously speeding up recovery. If you’re wondering which type of compress (hot or cold) you should be using for each type of injury, then the answer will depend on what it is currently looking like and on how recent the injury is.
As a general rule, it is recommended that you use ice packs for injuries that are very recent and that are still red and inflamed. Following a sprain or a muscle tear, you will find that the area is swollen and so your aim is to try and combat that inflammation so that the pain eases and so that the swelling itself doesn’t cause any further damage to the surrounding tissue. This will also help to numb the area but make sure not to apply ice directly to the skin (have a layer of material between) and not to keep it there for more than 10 minutes. So that is how to treat sore muscles caused by injury in the short term.
Once the swelling has gone down though, it is better to use a warm compress. This will help to encourage blood flow to the affected area, speeding up recovery. Moreover, it will also help to relax the muscle and thereby reduce discomfort.
All types of muscle soreness meanwhile can benefit from relaxation and this can be accomplished via a warm bath, or via supplements such as valerian root or magnesium which help to ease the muscles.
There are other reasons that you may be experiencing muscle soreness. Whenever you are fighting a cold or flu for instance, muscle soreness can occur as a response to the action of antibodies and cytokines (pro-inflammatory hormones). Symptoms of illness are caused by the body fighting infection, not by the infections themselves!
Likewise, certain forms of stress or depression can also lead to muscle soreness as pain sensitivity becomes greatly heightened. This is a much rarer reason for muscle pain however and it is unlikely that you would confuse the two. Apart from anything else, this kind of muscle soreness will affect the entire body.
Whatever the case, know your cause of muscle soreness and then take the appropriate action. Sometimes identifying the cause of your muscle pain is the hardest part. But don’t worry, this will come in time as you learn the quirks of your own body!