Muscle pain frequently results from prolonged or vigorous physical exercise undertaken by someone who is unaccustomed to strenuous activity.
Even fit people can be caught by surprise if they push themselves a little too far or use a muscle group that they don’t usually exercise.
For example a fit walker may suffer muscle aches and pain after cycling because the leg muscles will be used in a different way. Cycling will make more use of muscles that may not be over stressed by walking and the resulting sore muscles can come as a surprise to a fit walker or jogger.
Muscle pain can come on relatively quickly after exercise and certainly by the next day the affected person can be suffering quite badly from aching muscles.
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There Is An End To Muscle Ache
If, for example, leg muscles are hurting badly and stiff it may be difficult to walk freely. Descending stairs with aching muscles can be difficult and if your legs muscles are stiff and sore you may have to descend stairs sideways like a crab for a day until the muscles loosen up.
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After a few days, usually no more than 72 hours, the muscles will gradually free up and stop hurting but you should see a Doctor if the pain and stiffness persists longer than a week. There is chance you might have actually injured a tendon, ligament or joint or have developed some other problem.
There are some other causes for muscle aches and for example, if you do too little exercise, prolonged inactivity may cause muscle ache. Some medical conditions may also cause muscle ache but for now I am just referring to muscle ache caused by over use.
Any Muscle Can Ache – And Probably Will If It Gets Stressed
The most common muscle aches are in the legs as they are the easiest to over exercise by walking to running to far or fast but any muscle or group of muscles can ache if pushed beyond their usual limits. Even your stomach muscles can ache painfully if you have been sick and vomiting forcefully.
Some Physiology For You
There are several reasons why your muscles can ache after exercise. The first is that unfit muscles are not able to eliminate the waste products from the fuel they use as energy to power them fast enough to keep up with the increased energy use. Waste products temporarily build up within the muscles.
Muscles use a lot of energy and oxygen to contract repeatedly and the harder they work the more fuel and oxygen they use. This leads to another reason why muscles can ache. They can temporarily run out of fuel and oxygen.
As fuel to power muscle mostly comes from the oxidation of fats and carbohydrates sourced from the fat, sugars, proteins and carbohydrates stored in muscle fibers, the supply of rapidly available energy is limited. If exercise is vigorous and prolonged the muscles will simply run out of fuel.
Eventually fat in your blood is called on as an energy source along with fat stored under your skin and around your intestines. (Body fat can have its use as a energy source in times of extreme prolonged activity and during times of famine but many modern day health problems stem from the excess body fat many of us carry for far too long as we never get to utilize it so it becomes permanent. We never need to call on this reserve of energy.)
If we are fit enough to push ourselves past this energy crisis our bodies can start to access energy from body fat but for most of us, we are not fit enough to keep going long enough for this to happen. We become exhausted and nothing but rest will get us going again. This is why exercise is not always the best way to loose weight; it is not possible to burn up enough calories to get to the stage where body fat gets converted into fuel.
Fit people also have developed more efficient means of supplying muscles with oxygen as you will read further on.
The Waste Removal Business
As muscles need large amounts of energy and oxygen as they work hard for an extended period they therefore also produce large amounts of waste products. These by products of metabolism need to be taken away from the muscle and excreted from the body, mainly by the kidneys but also via the breath and sweat.
If the exercise is prolonged these waste products build up in the muscle fibers faster they can be removed by the blood and filtered out by the kidneys. This build up of waste in the muscles causes that burning painful sensation we are all familiar with if we push ourselves when running, lifting or generally exerting ourselves for a prolonged period.
The physiology of muscle action is a complicated study with a lot of processes going on within muscle cells as energy is accessed and waste removed from working muscle cells.
The most troublesome waste products of muscle contraction are called ‘metabolites’ and these can interfere with the ability of calcium molecules to stimulate muscle cell contraction. There can also be a build up of Chloride and Potassium that can inhibit muscle contraction but the most commonly recognized build up in the muscles and blood is lactic acid.
Lactic Acid has been blamed for muscle pain and cramping but it may also be beneficial because it may partly negate the effects of chloride and potassium build up that can diminish muscles ability to contract. Some researchers are uncertain about the role of lactic acid but it is not generally thought to cause ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ (DOMS) because it disperses quite rapidly (usually within an hour) and will probably not be present in the muscles by the time DOMS sets in.
The Cause Of Muscle Pain
The muscle pain we experience some time after completing a strenuous workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness. This pain is due to tiny fibers within the muscles tearing as they get strained beyond breaking point.
Inside Muscles Miracles Happen
Damaged muscle fibers not only heal rapidly but new ones also grow among them to give them the potential to deal with an increased future workload. Alongside the extra muscle fiber that exercise produces, tiny blood vessels develop which also improves muscle efficiency by increasing availability of oxygen laden arterial blood to the muscles. (Exercise also improves the efficiency of the lungs, heart and circulatory system.)
Muscle Pain – The Real Cause
Any exercise that exceeds your fitness level can cause delayed onset muscle soreness and the damage to the muscle fibers bought about by overuse is known as ‘microtrauma’ which apart from actual damage to the muscle fiber also causes inflammation of the muscle fibers.
After strenuous and prolonged exercise damaged muscle fibers will be painful for around 72 hours but will repair themselves within a few days and become stronger and fitter as a result.
How To Get Sore Muscles
A particularly effective way to get delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), should you want sore muscles, is to do extended exercise that involves muscles applying force to oppose movement.
Walking down hill, for example, can mean using leg muscles to hold you back rather than propel you up the hill. If a muscle is applying an opposing force rather than contracting i.e. allowing a smooth controlled extension of legs to slow you as you walk downhill against the pull of gravity trying to speed you up, the tension generated by a resisting muscle can be about 10% stronger than the strength generated by the same muscle contracting.
This controlled elongation by muscles often results in temporary muscle damage – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. However, if you are a regular hiker you will have noticed that after a few trips up and down hills your down hill legs do get stronger and DOMS eventually ceases to be a problem.
Built In Protection
Muscles suffering from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness are remarkably adept at avoiding future DOMS due to a very useful consequence known as the ‘repeated -bout effect’. Muscles suffering damage from excessive controlled elongation (Called ‘eccentric exercise’) heal quite rapidly and become almost impervious to this type of damage in the future and the symptoms of it, such as aches, swelling, diminished strength and restricted movement, will also fade more rapidly in the future.
All this depends on the extent of the original damage, the time between exercise sessions, the difference between individuals and a few other factors but generally the protective effect will last for a few weeks and can be recharged by regular exercise.
The longer between exercise bouts the weaker the protection becomes but protection has been demonstrated three weeks after muscle damage and may last longer with diminishing effectiveness. Regular exercise will keep the Repeated Bout Effect at full efficacy. Combine that with a modest dose of endorphins you get from exercise and you will be not only be healthier as you enjoy pain free exercise, you’ll be happier too.
Beat Muscle Soreness
If your muscles are aching there are a few things you can do to relieve the aches.
- Firstly you can do some more exercise as activity relieves the soreness even if it hurts more just getting started on it again.
Further exercise after muscle soreness sets in produces a naturally occurred analgesia, or pain control. This further moderate exercise will not slow down the healing or make the muscle damage worse and it is very likely to increase the future threshold after which pain becomes obvious and it will also improve your ability to tolerate pain. Therefore gentle exercise while suffering from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is worthwhile.
- Another tack to take is to avoid eccentric exercise as much as possible for a couple of days and concentrate on exercise that only involves contracting muscles or isometric exercise which involves pushing or pulling against a fixed object and then relaxing.
- Other good, and possibly more enjoyable, ways of beating DOMS pretty much involves anything that warms the muscles and increases the blood flow in them.
A soak in a hot tub or sauna is good and probably even better if it includes a glass of wine. Alcohol has the ability to dilate blood vessels so moderate consumption should help. As an alternative, or in addition, you could use an over the counter anti- inflammatory drug. These can be taken either orally or rubbed on the affected muscles. There are some effective natural anti-inflammatories which your pharmacist should be able to offer also.
Note: If you have an actual injury such as a sprain soaking in a hot tub will encourage swelling so should be avoided.
Light exercise works well and massage is fine as long as it is gentle as vigorous massage might further damage already battered muscles. Gentle massage can stimulate blood flow and warm the muscles.
The treatment for DOMS would be best if it includes all of these:
- Light exercise
- A short course of anti-inflammatory drugs
- Gentle massage
For best results start on the treatment before Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness becomes evident. You can’t prevent DOMS by stretching or warming up before exercise starts; in fact enthusiastic stretching can occasionally cause DOMS!
Getting Fit Is Beneficial On Every Level
For better all round health keep your weight down and exercise regularly. If you want to get fit push yourself a little each time you go out and then relax with a more gentle exercise period to finish off. Numerous studies have shown that fit people tend to be happier and healthier than unfit people. For the sake of your health and relationships an improvement in your fitness levels is a very easy cost free route to take to achieve a fitter future.