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Soreness or Pain: How to Tell the Difference

There are many benefits to exercise physically and mentally. But if you are starting after a long hiatus, it may not feel that way. Initiating exercise is usually accompanied by discomfort. This is because exercise is a stress on the body, although a good kind with long term benefits. The difficulty lies in deciding if the discomfort you feel is muscular soreness, a healthy and expected result of exercise, or pain, a warning sign of injury. Trying to find the line between muscular soreness and pain can be difficult. Especially for those who rarely exercise or who have not exercised in a long time. Keep reading for tips of finding the difference between the two.

So what is soreness compared to pain? 

Soreness or Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness (DOMS) is the result of small, safe damage to muscle fibers. Usually the sensation connected with DOMS is tenderness to the touch and feeling tight and achy. Initial movement will be uncomfortable but continuing to move or gentle stretching will reduce the intensity of soreness. Pain, however, is more subjective. Pain can feel sharp, achy, or tingling. It often will have lingering pain that will last after rest. Intensity of pain is also very subjective and intensity may feel like it’s worsening as time progresses. If discomfort falls into the pain description and lasts for >5 days, you should consult with a physician or PT. 

Read Below for a more in depth description of the differences between soreness and pain in order to see if the discomfort you are feeling is a worrisome or a normal part of getting stronger/fitter.

Muscle Soreness vs Pain Chart

Muscle Soreness Pain
Sensation Tenderness to the touch, feels like tiredness or burning while exercising, dull tight and achy feeling at rest. Ache, tingling, or sharp pain with exercise or at rest.
Onset During Exercise or 24-72 hrs after activity During exercise or within 24 hrs of activity
Duration 2-3 days May linger if not addressed
Location Muscles Muscles or joints
Improves With Stretching, gentle movement, appropriate rest/recovery Ice, rest, movement, except in significant injury, see physician or PT.
Worsens with Sitting still, initial movement Continued activity after appropriate rest/recovery
Next Steps Get moving again after appropriate rest/recovery, consider a different activity or cross training  (ex. lift, swim, or bike instead of walk/run) Consult with physician or PT if symptoms last >1 week. 

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