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Sore muscles: what helps and how it develops

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 251 views

The term sore muscles refers to harmless pain in the muscles, such as in the thigh and calf muscles. They are usually caused by overexertion during sports or other physical activities. Typically, the pain does not start immediately, but only a few hours after the exertion. The affected muscles are less flexible due to the pain. After ten days at the latest, the sore muscles usually go away on their own. If not, you should see a doctor. Read everything important about the symptom “muscle soreness” here.

quick overview

  • What is sore muscles? harmless muscle pain , especially after excessive physical activity (like exercising)
  • Causes: micro-injuries in the muscle fibers, inflammatory processes, epileptic seizures and certain medications
  • Treatment: avoid high physical exertion, if necessary warm up the affected muscles and stretch them slightly
  • Prevention: regular physical training, correct training structure (slow increase in load)
  • When to the doctor? If the pain persists for more than ten days or was not preceded by excessive or unaccustomed physical activity

Sore muscles: what works best?

When muscles are sore, the damaged muscle fibers regenerate themselves without any consequential damage. This usually happens within a few days: the sore muscles are at their worst on the first or second day after the exertion; After seven to ten days at the latest, the pain should have subsided.

So no special therapy is necessary to get rid of the sore muscles. But you can do a little bit to ensure that it is not quite as uncomfortable and impairs mobility less:

  • Be patient: The best way to get rid of sore muscles is to let them heal. That means: no high force loads. There are no medications to treat the cause of sore muscles.
  • Relieve pain: Anti-inflammatory painkillers do not treat muscle soreness itself, but they can help temporarily relieve severe pain.
  • Heat: Experience has shown that heat treatment can also be useful. Athletes in particular often swear by a visit to the sauna to relieve sore muscles. Warm baths can also help muscle fibers recover faster. The reason is that the heat increases blood flow to the muscles.
  • Stretch and relax: The pain of movement can be temporarily relieved by passively stretching the sore muscles or doing relaxation exercises. Presumably because cramps loosen up or accumulated fluid ( edema ) is flushed out.
  • Nutrition: Consuming carbohydrates and protein after exercise helps the muscles to regenerate. As a result, the sore muscles may not be quite as severe. However, it is not possible to specifically prevent it through diet – not even with so-called antioxidants. These are substances in food and dietary supplements that protect our cells from aggressive oxygen compounds. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that they – as sometimes propagated – can significantly reduce muscle pain.
  • Exercise: For ambitious athletes, the first thought when it comes to sore muscles is often: “Can I train despite aching muscles?”. The answer is: yes. Muscle soreness is a muscle injury. You should therefore rest temporarily and avoid high physical loads in any case. However, since light exercise stimulates the metabolism, a light workout can actually help to repair muscle damage more quickly. Exercises in the water or light cycling are suitable, for example.

Massages are not suitable for sore muscles. They can further irritate the injured muscle fibers and slow down the healing process instead of speeding it up.

Sore muscles: where does it come from?

Sore muscles are caused by tiny tears (micro-injuries) in the muscle fibers, more precisely: in the muscle fibrils that make up the muscle fibers. Injuries are usually caused by unfamiliar movement patterns. Muscle fibers can tear. Tiny foci of inflammation develop as the body tries to repair the damage. Water enters the fibers and forms small fluid collections called edema . These cause the muscle to swell. The stretching causes the typical sore muscles.

Muscle soreness from exercise

The most common cause of sore muscles is exercise. Sports with frequent stopping and starting movements, such as tennis, football or weight training, are particularly “dangerous” in this regard. Regular jogging , on the other hand, causes less muscle soreness.

A real muscle sore classic is walking downhill when hiking : it puts a lot more strain on the muscles than going up.

The less trained you are, the greater the risk of getting sore muscles. However, new movements also pose a risk for well-trained athletes. In addition, signs of fatigue during long competitions can under certain circumstances impair muscle coordination and thus lead to muscle soreness.

Muscle soreness from fatigue and inflammation

A rarer form of muscle soreness is due to exhaustion. The tears in the muscle fibrils occur when the metabolism has been under long and intensive demands, for example by running a marathon. The lack of energy causes damage in the cell, and the repair processes are accompanied by inflammation. The possible result is sore muscles.

Sore muscles from epileptic seizures and medication

Muscle soreness can also result from epileptic seizures and certain muscle-relaxing drugs (called depolarizing muscle relaxants). These drugs are used to induce anesthesia . They cause subtle muscle contractions that can lead to sore muscles.

Lactic acid is not to blame

The widespread assumption that sore muscles are caused by an overproduction of lactic acid (lactate) in the stressed muscles has now been refuted. Scientists were able to see the fine, pain-causing cracks in the muscle fibrils under the electron microscope.

What also speaks against the lactic acid theory: The half-life of lactate is only 20 minutes. This means that after this short period of time, half of the original amount of lactate has already been broken down. The lactic acid level has long since normalized as soon as the sore muscles set in.

In addition, muscle soreness occurs less frequently during sports activities with a high production of lactic acid (such as a 400-meter run), but increases after strength training , for example , in which the muscle is exposed to high mechanical stress.

Avoid muscle soreness

While some people proudly take sore muscles as proof that they’ve exercised “properly,” nobody really likes to endure muscle pain. Luckily though, there are some steps you can take to avoid sore muscles.

  • Train in a structured way: With the right training structure, you can prevent sore muscles. It is important to increase the load slowly and gradually so that the muscles are not overstrained. This is especially true for unfamiliar movement sequences such as a new gymnastic exercise.
  • Be active regularly: Regular exercise reduces the risk of sore muscles. Because if you move a lot, you improve your coordination – and the more coordinated exercises are carried out, the better the muscles work together. Regular training of the muscles also leads to the muscles becoming more resilient. Micro-injuries become rarer.
  • cool off afterwards: According to some studies, sore muscles can be prevented or at least alleviated by stepping into cold water of 10 to 15 degrees for a few minutes after exercising. Various professional athletes swear by this method. However, their benefit has not been scientifically proven.

Stretching and warm-up exercises before exercise do not help prevent muscle soreness. However, they are still important because they reduce the risk of muscle strains.

Sore Muscles: When to See a Doctor?

Normally you don’t have to go to the doctor for a sore muscle. But it becomes a concern if:

  • the sore muscles don’t go away on their own after ten days at the latest
  • You cannot explain your sore muscles by too much exercise and sport

In these cases it is not certain that the muscle pain is really only caused by a harmless soreness. There are many other reasons for sore muscles, some of them serious. Therefore, in unclear cases, a doctor’s visit is advisable.

The doctor will first question you in detail in order to collect your medical history ( anamnesis ). For example, he may ask if you have recently been excessively or unusually physically active. The doctor will also ask when exactly the pain started and how it progressed (eg increasing, staying the same, stabbing, etc.). This information helps identify the original pain trigger.

After the interview, there is a physical examination . The doctor feels the affected muscles. If the suspicion is confirmed that it is not a sore muscle but a muscle injury (such as a muscle tear), the doctor orders an imaging test , such as an ultrasound scan or magnetic resonance imaging . Since a bone injury can also be behind muscle soreness -like symptoms, an X-ray examination is often necessary.

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