Sore muscles? It could be DOMS

Date Published: 
January 10, 2014

You may have experienced it, but you may not know what the problem is and what you can do to free yourself of the pain. DOMS — delayed-onset muscle soreness — is also called “muscle fever.”

With so many making New Year’s resolutions to get in shape in 2014, you might find yourself experiencing the pain of muscle fever. That’s because it often occurs when you start a new exercise program, dramatically alter your typical exercise routine or significantly increase how long and how intensely you are exercising.

What people who experience muscle fever feel is a sort of sickness with severe pain and stiffness. It’s not the same kind of muscle pain or soreness you can often feel during your typical exercise program, and it’s not the same as the really intense pain from a muscle strain or sprain that causes deep bruising and extreme swelling.

Most of the time, it happens 24 to 72 hours after vigorous exercise, or even days later, and it can last a week. Because the pain is often very sharp, sometimes it’s mistaken for a pulled muscle.

Muscle fever really is a symptom of microscopic tears to muscles. Because your body isn’t used to it or prepared for it, movements that cause forceful contraction of a muscle while it is lengthening are often found to cause the greatest discomfort.

For people just getting started on an exercise program and for those of you who decide to crank it up suddenly and are expecting your body to just go with it, muscle fever can be very painful.

The key here is to understand that, while it’s painful, it is not permanent. It usually starts to ease after the first few days. Be aware that it’s a normal reaction your muscles are having to the sudden and unusual demand that you’ve placed on them. Your muscles are trying to adapt, and they will. Ultimately, your muscles will build greater stamina and strength. But, there are smarter ways to go about it.

Don’t let the risk of muscle fever turn you off to getting on track with a regular exercise program. Regular readers know that I am all for getting in shape because it has so many huge benefits and it does so much to improve the quality of your life. Like anything else, it’s about proper preparation, so here’s what you need to know to deal with muscle fever if you get it and what you can do to prevent it.

There is no one easy way to reduce the pain and soreness of muscle fever. The best advice is to try a few options and see what gives you results.

One option is to use low-impact aerobic exercises. Research has shown that the increased blood flow that results can ease soreness. Another approach is to try gentle stretching to reduce the symptoms. Research has found that, in and of itself, stretching isn’t a cure all, but many people find they do get some relief.

You should also consider taking an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. It won’t heal the problem, but it may offer some temporary reduction in the pain and soreness. If the pain lasts longer than seven days, you need to see a medical professional and find out if you are dealing with a problem other than DOMS.

You can also try physical therapy with a physical therapist trained in dealing with sports-related injuries. A physical therapy has a variety of specially designed programs — such as active release technique, which focuses on soft tissues — to deliver relief to your painful muscles. I recommend calling the physical therapy practice you are considering to ask about options and their experience.

When all is said and done, the best advice anyone can give you focuses on prevention. Take the right steps to avoid being afflicted with muscle fever. Start with common sense. Warm up before you exercise. When beginning an exercise program or changing your routine, gradually crank up how long you exercise and how intensely.

Many recommend what’s commonly called “the 10 percent rule.” It means any new exercise or any dramatic change in routine should be done by limiting the time and intensity of the increase in your program to no more than 10 percent a week. Slow progress is the healthiest approach.

Also, don’t work out on an empty stomach. I don’t mean you should eat a large meal. That’s not a good idea. But eating a nutritious meal about two hours before you work out gives you the fuel your body needs. You also need to drink. Drink before you exercise to avoid dehydration and stay hydrated by drinking during your workout to replace the fluids you are losing.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you aren’t feeling well, don’t exercise. Let your body recover before you place additional demands on it. If you feel pain when exercising, stop. Your body is telling you that something is not right. Don’t think you should just ignore it and keep pushing forward. What you are really doing is giving yourself a high percentage chance of suffering a severe injury.

After you exercise, try cooling down. Mild, non-strenuous stretching helps your muscles transition from high activity to a more restful stage.

Taking these preventative measures won’t necessarily prevent any muscle soreness, but it should go a long way toward reducing muscle soreness and avoiding extreme discomfort and it will go a long way toward preventing DOMS.

With the new year upon us, I look back at 2013 with thanks to all of you who have let me know you look for my columns in the Coastal Point and share them with your family and friends. My goal remains sharing the knowledge that can help you stay in good health and enjoy life.

Have a healthy, happy New Year and make this the year you act on that resolution and get in shape. Do it for yourself, do it for your family and friends, and make 2014 the best year, yet.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be-reached by calling (302) 537-7260.