Whether your lifestyle is athletic or relatively sedentary, you’ve likely experienced muscle soreness after physically exerting yourself more than usual. If this soreness occurs one to three days after activity, it is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Some think that lactic acid buildup in a muscle causes DOMS, but this is a misconception. The burning you may experience in a muscle during or immediately after exertion can be caused by lactic acid, a waste product of muscle work, building up in a muscle and not being released due to the muscle’s contracted state. Once the muscle relaxes, waste is usually rid rather quickly. DOMS is thought to be caused by tears to muscles that occur when we exceed our normal limits and the inflammation that comes with tears.
The most common muscle activity that leads to tears is called eccentric muscle contraction. This occurs when a muscle is contracting while being lengthened. For example, when lowering a weight during a bicep curl, your bicep is contracting (working) while it is being lengthened by the downward pull of the weight. This type of contraction also occurs when walking down stairs or running downhill. The muscle is simultaneously stretching and tightening, forming a ripe situation for a muscle tear.
DOMS is not a serious condition and requires no medical intervention. Home treatment is sufficient as long as you don’t continue to overuse the sore muscle, causing tears to accumulate and inflammation to damage tissues further.
The muscle should be allowed to rest while sore. Take a break from your workout routine or other strenuous activities. Ice the muscle during the first 3 days for 15 minutes at a time 3 to 4 times daily to relieve inflammation. After this period, if muscle soreness remains, heat may be used to increase circulation and loosen the tight muscle. Gentle stretching may help to relieve the tension of the muscle, but take care not to hyperextend it; this can lead to further tearing.
Prevention of DOMS depends on the cause. If you’re athletic and tend to experience this condition, it means that your conditioning does not match your activity. The intensity of your training should progress gradually. RunnersWorld.com and other fitness sites promote the “10% rule,” which dictates increasing your activity level by no more than 10% a week. For runners, this means mileage increase shouldn’t exceed 10% weekly. Weight trainers can follow this rule by increasing the weight they work with by no more than 10% weekly.
For the sedentary, DOMS is often a painful wake-up call that you need to get in shape. If walking around town or a mall for a few hours causes your muscles to be sore for days after, then you likely spend too much time sitting and lack strength in your legs, glutes, hips, abdomen and back. While DOMS is not a serious condition, it is a definite call to begin a workout plan if you can’t perform a small amount of exertion without days of pain that follow. Begin with light cardio, such as walking or gentle swimming, and a core workout, such as the one detailed here: four back pain relief exercises. Start slow and don’t push yourself beyond your limits.