Why do my muscles get sore?


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What is soreness?

Soreness in the muscle during exercise is known as 'muscle failure', and occurs when metabolic waste and other compounds build up in the muscle cell and hinder the ability of the muscle to contract. Muscle failure goes away relatively quickly.

Prolonged muscle soreness is called 'Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness', or DOMS for short. It is caused by similar mechanisms as above, but is more delayed in its clearance and return to norm. This is the soreness that somebody would feel after a hard run or leg session and be unable to easily walk up stairs the next day.


What causes soreness?

There are various things that contribute towards DOMS.[1] Including:

  • Neutrophil accumulation
  • Substance P
  • Aseptic Inflammation
  • Interstital Edema
  • Creatine Kinase

Lactic Acid is commonly thought to induce muscle failure or soreness, but has not been shown to be the causative factor. It is highly correlated though[2], as lactic acid is produced when the muscle is sore; however its more of a fuel source than a soreness causing agent.[3][4][5]


How can I get rid of soreness?

There are various mechanisms of reducing DOMS.[6]

Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) like Aspirin (Acetylsalicyclic acid) or Ibuprofen (Advil) can reduce future DOMS when taken at around the time of exercise.[7][8]

Some light exercise, or moving the affected joints and muscles, can also alleviate DOMS.[8][9] This may be due to merely moving the affected muscles, as 'whole-body vibration therapy' has recently been suggested to do similar.[10][11]

Cryotherapy, or ice water submerging, has beneficial anecdotes by various athletes but has not been shown to be of much benefit in randomized controlled trials.[12][13] That being said, cryotherapy may hold some potential in cases of muscular trauma such as hamstring tears or intense muscular strains.[14][15][16] Cryotherapy's effectiveness may be closely tied in to the degree of muscular damage, and serve as a bridge between such anecdotes in high level athletes and a lack of results in novice trainees in intervention studies.[17]

Athletic massage after exercise may also be effective in controlling DOMS[18], possibly via reducing how many neutrophils get to the site to induce soreness.[1]

Proper pre-workout nutrition can also play a role in preventing DOMS, as Branched Chain Amino Acids supplementation has been shown to be beneficial[19] (and can be consumed through Whey Protein or protein-containing foods)

Stretching (static) before or after exercise is not significantly effective in reducing DOMS from exercise.[20]

Tags: doms, weightlifting, soreness, sore, muscle, pain, substance P, neutrophil, lactic acid

  1. Smith LL, et al. The effects of athletic massage on delayed onset muscle soreness, creatine kinase, and neutrophil count: a preliminary report. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. (1994)
  2. Hultman E, Spriet LL, Söderlund K. Biochemistry of muscle fatigue. Biomed Biochim Acta. (1986)
  3. Westerblad H, Allen DG, Lännergren J. Muscle fatigue: lactic acid or inorganic phosphate the major cause. News Physiol Sci. (2002)
  4. Cairns SP. Lactic acid and exercise performance : culprit or friend. Sports Med. (2006)
  5. Westerblad H, Allen DG. Recent advances in the understanding of skeletal muscle fatigue. Curr Opin Rheumatol. (2002)
  6. Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Med. (2003)
  7. Tokmakidis SP, et al. The effects of ibuprofen on delayed muscle soreness and muscular performance after eccentric exercise. J Strength Cond Res. (2003)
  8. Rahnama N, Rahmani-Nia F, Ebrahim K. The isolated and combined effects of selected physical activity and ibuprofen on delayed-onset muscle soreness. J Sports Sci. (2005)
  9. Zainuddin Z, et al. Light concentric exercise has a temporarily analgesic effect on delayed-onset muscle soreness, but no effect on recovery from eccentric exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. (2006)
  10. Aminian-Far A, et al. Whole-body vibration and the prevention and treatment of delayed-onset muscle soreness. J Athl Train. (2011)
  11. Bakhtiary AH, Safavi-Farokhi Z, Aminian-Far A. Influence of vibration on delayed onset of muscle soreness following eccentric exercise. Br J Sports Med. (2007)
  12. Sellwood KL, et al. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med. (2007)
  13. Paddon-Jones DJ, Quigley BM. Effect of cryotherapy on muscle soreness and strength following eccentric exercise. Int J Sports Med. (1997)
  14. Mendiguchia J, Brughelli M. A return-to-sport algorithm for acute hamstring injuries. Phys Ther Sport. (2011)
  15. Heiderscheit BC, et al. Hamstring strain injuries: recommendations for diagnosis, rehabilitation, and injury prevention. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. (2010)
  16. Kuenze C, Hart JM. Cryotherapy to treat persistent muscle weakness after joint injury. Phys Sportsmed. (2010)
  17. Hubbard TJ, Denegar CR. Does Cryotherapy Improve Outcomes With Soft Tissue Injury. J Athl Train. (2004)
  18. Zainuddin Z, et al. Effects of massage on delayed-onset muscle soreness, swelling, and recovery of muscle function. J Athl Train. (2005)
  19. Shimomura Y, et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2010)
  20. Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2011)

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