Soreness vs. Pain: Learn When It's Time to Worry, See a Doctor

No pain, no gain.

It’s been the motto that has been plastered on gym walls across the country.

If you’re sore, then you’re not doing it right. Sure, that’s a so-so way to look at things when your goal is to build muscle but there is a fine line between soreness and pain. Muscle soreness is an indicator of microtears in the tissue that will be recover quickly. Pain, on the other hand, may be a sign of a strain, tear, or injury.

Let’s take a look at differences between soreness and pain as well as warning signs that it’s time to visit your doctor.

pain, soreness, injury

Characteristics of Soreness

It’s Tuesday morning and yesterday, you hit the gym to work on your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. You feel fine but as you go to stand up, the soreness hits. It’s not awful or debilitating but you can’t help but hobble around for a bit. Your muscles feel tender but you can easily go about your day, except when you have to bend down to pick something up.

Soreness is common and expected after a workout. In fact, depending on experience level, soreness may not arrive until 48 hours after the workout. Here are the general characteristics of safe and expected muscle soreness.

  • Begins 24 to 48 hours post-workout
  • Muscles feel tender and/or tight
  • Muscles feel better once you start moving
  • Stretching helps dramatically
  • Able to maintain a normal routine
  • Lightly exercising the muscle helps / doesn’t hurt
  • Lasts for 24 to 72 hours

Characteristics of Pain

You’re lifting in the gym. As you near the end of your set of barbell squats, you feel a sharp sting in your lower back. You rack the weight and wait until the feeling subsides but it doesn’t. You try another set of squats but that only makes it worse. You leave the gym, ignore the feeling and go about your day. When you wake up the next morning, your lower back is much worse. Stretching isn’t helping and over-the-counter medications only dull what you feel.

Pain is not a normal part of working out. If you feel pain, there’s a good chance that you may have sustained a tear, strain, or injury. Here are the general characteristics of pain.

  • Begins immediately / during the activity
  • Muscles experience a stinging / stabbing sensation
  • The feeling may go deeper than the muscle tissue
  • Stretching does not help
  • Difficult to impossible to maintain a normal routine
  • Not possible to resume normal physical activity
  • May last for days, weeks, or months

pain, soreness, injury

When to See a Doctor

Most times, pain will resolve on its own. It may take longer than muscle soreness but eventually it does subside. If you experience any of the following, you should make a doctor’s appointment immediately:

  • Tingling / Numbness
  • Pain that lasts for more than 2 weeks
  • Pain that worsens
  • Pain that spreads from the original site of injury
  • Pain that doesn’t improve after taking OTC medication

Tell Us What You Think!

Have you experienced pain post-workout?

What did you do to alleviate your symptoms?

Let us know in the comments below!

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