Almost everyone has experienced sore muscles before at one point. As all parts of your body have muscle tissues, so you can feel the pain everywhere.
Sore muscles are usually caused by the stress you put on muscles when you exercise. It’s normal to experience muscle soreness after strenuous exercise, a change in your exercise regime, or starting a new exercise programme. You’ll begin to feel the soreness about 6 to 8 hours after your workout. It’ll normally last for about 24 to 48 hours.
However, don’t worry too much about it. Some at-home treatments can help you ease the soreness.
What are the Common Causes of Sore Muscles?
Sore muscles after a workout are normal. In fact, when muscles are pushed to work harder than they are used to or in a different way, it can result in microscopic damage to your muscle fibres. This is what causes stiff or sore muscles, which is also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Once the fibres repair themselves, the result is bigger and stronger muscles. It’s a type of conditioning whereby your muscles will be better prepared to handle the stress you exert during exercise in the future. Muscle soreness is mistakenly attributed to a buildup of lactic acid. However, lactic acid is not involved in DOMS.
Other potential causes for muscle soreness are sprains, stress, dehydration, nutritional deficiency, infections, and diseases. So, if your muscle soreness persists for many days, you might want to see a medical professional for a consultation.
Sore Muscles, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, a weak digestive system can usually cause muscle soreness. Reduced kidney strength, dampness, and circulation problems can also cause sore muscles.
“A weak spleen or a weak kidney usually cause sore muscles. In TCM, we don’t classify organs anatomically; it’s more like the system. So, if you have a weak spleen, it means your digestive system is weak. This affects your muscles from a TCM perspective. This is also the case if you have a weak kidney because the bones are directly related to the kidneys in TCM. At the same time, your bone health will affect your muscles as they work closely together to enable your body to perform many movements,” says Real Health Medical TCM physician Brandon Yew.
“Then, dampness is a result of the tropical climate in Southeast Asia. The high moisture levels in the air trap heat, increasing the hot and humid weather we so commonly experience. It affects our bodies by retarding our qi and blood circulation, similar to how it hinders heat dissipation, which in turn causes muscle soreness,” he explains.
How to Ease Sore Muscles at Home?
Depending on the severity, sore muscles can cause mild to intense discomfort. However, it usually heals on its own. If it doesn’t, you can try these home remedies.
When you are sore, you just don’t want to move. It may seem counter-intuitive but walking and some stretching are good for sore muscles. During recovery, your muscles will tighten. Thus, gentle stretching of the affected area can lessen the feeling of tightness.
Based on Sports Medicine research, exercise is the most effective means of reducing pain during DOMS. However, the effect is also temporary. Athletes who must train daily should reduce the intensity and duration of exercise for 1 to 2 days after an intense session that caused DOMS. Alternatively, exercises targeting less affected body parts can enable the most affected muscle groups to recover.
Physician Yew also recommends sweating it out with light exercise to help remove dampness. “However, don’t sweat profusely. In TCM, sweating too much would be counterproductive as it might deplete your vitality, lose too much qi, and thus harm the body,” physician Yew adds. He suggests doing regular activities or simple exercises.
“Even going into a sauna would be fine, as long as it’s for a short period of time only,” he says. You can also consider getting acupuncture or Tui Na — a TCM manual therapy that incorporates acupressure, deep tissue and meridian massages, and bone adjustments — treatments. Both treatments are highly sought-after for their effectiveness in relieving muscles soreness. As for the application of medicated oil (which comes in many different formulas), it is best to seek the advice of a TCM professional to decide on the suitability of use.
It is common for people to put ice packs on sore areas or swollen joints, but is it effective? Sports Medicine research finds that cold therapy can effectively reduce pain associated with DOMS in the first 24 hours after exercise. However, it is ineffective for pain after 24 hours post-exercise. Cold therapies include cold water immersion, ice packs, and ice massage.
John Hopkins Medicine suggests that a cold towel or cold compress can help ease the pain. It numbs the affected area, reduces swelling and inflammation, and in the case of injuries – reduces bleeding.
Heat is effective for decreasing the discomfort of DOMS by improving blood flow to the affected area. A hot shower or a soak in a hot bath can make it feel better. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine notes that when low-temperature heat wraps were applied immediately after heavy exercise for 8 hours continuously, there was a reduction in DOMS. When the heat was only applied 24 hours after exercise, it helped alleviate the discomfort. However, it is only to a lesser extent as heat increases tissue and tissue blood flow flexibility.
Furthermore, John Hopkins Medicine states that heat can help to reduce joint stiffness and muscle spasm. It is also particularly useful when muscles are tight. A warm towel or heating pad would come in handy when the need arises.
Muscle massage is another method to help alleviate sore muscles. Journal of Athletic Training investigates the effects of a 10-minute massage performed three hours after an exercise session on DOMS. It finds that massage effectively alleviates DOMS by approximately 30%. Massage can also reduce swelling, but it has no effects on muscle function.
Consuming ginseng can effectively lessen the intensity of muscle soreness 24 hours after exercise. Based on the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, ginseng supplementation can reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses.
Similarly, the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine reveals that ginseng effectively reduced the magnitude of soreness 24 hours after resistance exercise. Also, ginseng may improve post-exercise muscle fatigue because the neuromuscular function was noticeably better.
Try consuming supplements, soup or tea containing ginseng after your exercise to reduce the soreness in your muscles.
Collagen protein has high amino acid content, making it ideal for promoting muscle repair and recovery. Thus, taking collagen drinks or supplements may help repair muscles and improve joint health, making it an attractive option for nutrition after a workout.
Amino Acids investigates whether consuming collagen peptides (CP) before and after strenuous exercise significantly affects muscle damage, inflammation, and bone turnover. It finds that CP has moderate benefits for recovering muscle soreness but has no influence on inflammation and bone collagen synthesis.
Tart cherry juice
Packed with antioxidants, tart cherry juice can help reduce muscle soreness. This allows you to get some relief from muscle soreness. It is available in capsules and powder so that you can add it to your smoothie and consume it after exercising.
According to the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, tart cherry juice can help recovery following strenuous exercise by increasing total antioxidative capacity, reducing inflammation and lipid peroxidation, thus aiding in the recovery of muscle function. Lipid peroxidation is when free radicals take electrons from the cell membranes of lipids, causing damage to the cells.
If the pain is too uncomfortable, you can consider taking over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
If you have muscle soreness, you can try one of the home remedies to relax your muscles and recover faster. However, if the pain becomes unbearable, you notice swelling, or your urine becomes dark, please consult a medical professional.
- American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2011. Effects of Panax ginseng supplementation on muscle damage and inflammation after uphill treadmill running in humans. [Accessed 2 June 2021]
- Amino Acids. 2019. The effects of collagen peptides on muscle damage, inflammation and bone turnover following exercise: a randomized, controlled trial. [Accessed 2 June 2021]
- Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2017. The Efficacy of Sustained Heat Treatment on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- Journal of Athletic Training. 2005. Effects of Massage on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, Swelling, and Recovery of Muscle Function. [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2018. The Effects of a Korean Ginseng, GINST15, on Perceptual Effort, Psychomotor Performance, and Physical Performance in Men and Women. [Accessed 2 June 2021]
- National Health Service (NHS). 2021. Why do I feel pain after exercise? [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- National Kidney Foundation. n.d. Understanding Muscle Soreness – How Much is Too Much? [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2010. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. [Accessed 2 June 2021]
- Sports Medicine. 2003. Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- Sports Medicine Research. 2021. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Put a Freeze on it or Heat it up? [Accessed 5 June 2021]
- John Hopkins Medicine. Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses For Pain. [Accessed 5 June 2021]