Have you decided to make a start on your New Year’s resolution and take up exercise now? Or maybe you’re looking at stepping up your usual routine ahead of the inevitable excesses of the holidays? The chances are that your muscles will pay the price.
Starting within a day of your exercise session, your muscles begin to seize up, and you feel more and more uncomfortable. For the next couple of days, you move like a robot, find it hard to dress yourself, and the simple act of walking down a set of stairs will see you groaning in agony.
Whether you have recently taken up exercise or really pushed your limits, you may well be familiar with this sequence of events.
You are experiencing the delights of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). But what causes the pain, and is there anything you can do to stop it? We bring you the scientific evidence.
DOMS and eccentric exercise
DOMS is the hallmark of eccentric exercise. This is any exercise that causes a muscle to lengthen while it is under tension. Examples of eccentric exercise are running (particularly downhill), the lowering movement of a bicep curl, and the downward phase of a squat.
When we perform eccentric exercises that our bodies aren’t yet used to, we cause damage to our muscles.
Writing in the journal Sports Medicine, Patricia Hume, Ph.D. — a professor of human performance in the School of Sport & Recreation at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand — explains that “DOMS is classified as a type I muscle strain injury.”
“[…] the sensations experienced with this injury can vary from slight muscle stiffness, which rapidly disappears during daily routine activities, to severe debilitating pain which restricts movement,” she adds.
But what causes the muscle damage and the pain?
Many theories, few answers
Unfortunately, nobody really knows what causes DOMS, despite the fact that there are several scientific theories. Prof. Hume thinks it’s a combination of the many theories out there.
First, the forces generated during the eccentric movement damage the muscle structure and the surrounding connective tissue. This causes an imbalance of calcium, which leads to further damage.
Next, inflammation kicks in. This stimulates pain nerves within the space of 48 hours and is accompanied by swelling, which makes the pain worse.
Whatever the cause, the pain is real and can be debilitating. So, what can you do?
Antioxidants and cryotherapy
Many of the theories about DOMS point the finger squarely at excessive free radicals and oxidative damage generated during eccentric exercise.
Antioxidants have been hailed as the miracle cure. However, a systematic review published last week found no evidence to support this claim.
In fact, we reported earlier this year that a recent study in the journal Science Signaling found that free radicals may be essential for muscle repair.
Cryotherapy is a go-to post-exercise treatment for many people. Be it applying cold packs or the more sophisticated form of whole-body cryotherapy — recently experienced by members of the Medical News Today editorial team — there is no evidence that cryotherapy can help you to recover from DOMS.
How to beat DOMS
Instead, you could treat yourself to a massage, which — according to a systematic review published this September in the journal Frontiers in Physiology — might alleviate your pain, especially when applied 48 hours post-workout.
For a DIY solution, evidence is mounting that foam-roller massages can effectively reduce your pain.
A couple of smaller studies out this year suggest wearing pressure garments after your workout and consuming milk protein to speed up your recovery.
The good news is that DOMS will clear up on its own if you give your body enough rest. While you might be suffering the unpleasant effects as you read this, rest assured that your next workout will be less painful.