Decoding Muscle Pain: Is It Just Soreness Or An Injury?

While that old adage of no pain, no gain should definitely be taken with a grain of salt, there is something satisfying about having a little bit of soreness post-workout. You know that sweet spot—the one between having zero soreness and being so sore that any type of movement is painful. It’s that perfect feeling that allows you to really strut yourself (knowing that you kicked some serious butt at the gym), while also not missing a beat with your daily routine.

But the line that separates soreness and injury is really, really fine. That’s why so many of us make the mistake of overlooking common sports injuries by chalking them up to normal soreness. That’s why we asked Purnima Bansal, MD, a primary care sports medicine provider with GMC’s Duluth Family & Sports Medicine, for some of the best ways to decipher muscle discomfort—and more importantly—how to prevent a sports injury.
Pinpoint your pain.

This may be easier said than done, after all, pain is just pain—right? Not exactly. When differentiating between soreness and an injury, it’s essential to focus on the intensity and location of the pain.

For instance, if you’re experiencing generalized achiness, soreness or muscle tightness, it’s more likely that routine post-workout soreness is the cause. This is especially true if you feel the sensation in a general area—like an entire muscle group.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling sharp, throbbing, deep pain in specific spot, this could be a sign of an injury. And if these symptoms are accompanied by any sort of swelling, an injury is the likely culprit.

Reevaluate recovery.

Even though recovery is undeniably one of the most important parts of any exercise regimen, it’s often minimized or skipped over entirely. Not only are rest days are important to give your muscles time to heal, but they also give you a great snapshot at how your body is doing. 

Most of us can expect some amount of delayed-onset muscle soreness—depending on the regularity and intensity of exercise—to appear roughly 12 to 24 hours post-workout. However, if it’s just routine soreness, it should dissipate after 3 days, especially if you’re getting ample sleep and staying hydrated.

But if your soreness doesn’t seem to improve after a few days (less than 5 days), this could be cause for concern. This is especially true if light exercise—just enough to increase blood flow—doesn’t help either.

When in doubt, sit it out.

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you’re actually injured, don’t risk it to get the biscuit. While sitting out for a few days, or getting advice from a healthcare professional, may not sound as fun as your dance cardio class, it could mean the difference between sitting out for a few weeks vs. a few months.

In addition to being patient with your body, and yourself, here are a few tips to keep in mind when it comes to sports injuries:

·         Exercise isn’t just physical: It sounds obvious to say, but it’s true: exercise is a mental and physical experience. That’s why you need to be sure to give yourself a chance to recharge both physically and mentally between workouts. This helps ensure that you’re focused and motivated while exercising.

·         What happens outside of the gym matters: Even though the work you put in while at the gym is definitely important, your life outside of the gym matters just as much (maybe more). If you aren’t getting ample sleep, eating a healthful diet, relieving stress and living a balanced life, how can you expect your body to thrive under these conditions?

·         Be intentional with your rest days: Just because you’re not exercising doesn’t mean you have to just laze around on the couch all day, or eat whatever you want (even though it sounds a-m-a-z-i-n-g). In fact, when your body is recovering post-workout, being mindful of what you eat is more important than ever as it heals and grows muscle. And don’t forget to add in a little activity—stretching, walking or swimming—are all great options.

·         Ask an expert: The only way to really know what’s going on—whether it’s a tendon tear, sprain or something more serious—is to get help from an expert. At GMC’s Duluth Family & Sports Medicine, you’ll receive comprehensive care to help prevent and treat a variety of different injuries. From alternative exercise ideas to thorough treatment options, you can count on GMCfor all of your sports medicine needs.

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