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Fitness

DOMS: What it is and how to treat it

We answer all your questions about delayed-onset muscle soreness.

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Treating post-workout muscle soreness might be more complicated than you think. 

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

If you're new to the fitness world, you may not know about the "muscle fever" that plagues athletes and exercisers all over the world. It makes your muscles tender and tired and, in severe cases, can put you out of the gym for a few days. 

Scientists have been studying this phenomenon for decades, yet they still don't understand exactly why this happens. The condition does have a name, though: delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Nearly everyone who engages in any sort of physical activity will experience DOMS at some point. Here's what you need to know about prevention and treatment. 

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What exactly is DOMS, anyway? 

DOMS is muscle pain that sets in after you've engaged in physical activity. It's often called "muscle fever" because, depending on the severity, your muscles might feel weak and sickly in addition to sore. 

DOMS symptoms to watch out for include: 

  • Muscle pain and tenderness  
  • Compromised range of motion
  • Tightness and stiffness
  • Swelling in affected muscles 
  • Weakness in the affected muscles
  • Muscle fatigue or whole-body fatigue

Don't confuse DOMS with acute muscle soreness, which is the burning, "pumped up" sensation you feel during exercise. Acute muscle soreness occurs due to a buildup of lactic acid and usually goes away when you stop exercising. 

How long does DOMS last? 

It's hard to say, because of its finicky setting-in timeline. DOMS symptoms usually set in at least 12 hours after a workout, but usually more like 24 hours later. Pain peaks anywhere from two to three days post-workout, and then starts to ease up. You might still feel tight or slightly achy up to a week after your DOMS-inducing workout. 

Can you treat DOMS?

According to science, no. As of yet, there's no scientifically supported shortcut for DOMS -- time is the only treatment. 

However, you can ease your pain while you deal with DOMS. Just know that after the immediate pain-relief effects wear off, you'll still be sore, just perhaps not quite as sore. To ease soreness, you might try: 

Can you prevent DOMS? 

You may not be able to avoid DOMS, especially if you're new to exercising or following an exercise program that involves continual increases in intensity. You can take steps to lessen the severity of DOMS, however: 

  • Warm up before workouts: Warming up prepares your body for the intense stimulus of your workout.
  • Cool down after workouts: Help your body adjust back to its resting state by cooling down with low-intensity movement (walking, cycling) and stretching. Stretching won't prevent DOMS, but it can help you retain mobility and flexibility.  
  • Utilize recovery techniques as soon as possible: Massage, cryotherapy, compression therapy and other recovery techniques typically work best if utilized immediately after a workout. 
  • Be smart about intensity: Dial up your workouts slowly to build your strength and endurance while reducing the probability of overworking your muscles. 

Do I need to rest if I have DOMS?

Not necessarily. In fact, doing nothing can make DOMS worse because sedentary behavior doesn't encourage blood flow. You may want to avoid high intensity exercise or weight training, but you can most definitely engage in a little low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) exercise. That might look like 30 minutes of easy cycling, an hour-long walk or a gentle yoga flow. 

If you're only sore in one area -- say, your legs -- you can work out your upper body with no problem. Many bodybuilders and weightlifters utilize muscle group splits so they can continue working out even when certain muscle groups are sore. 

Does DOMS mean I had a good workout? 

Again, not necessarily. A lot of people associate DOMS with fitness gains, but that's not always true. It is true that soreness means your body is adapting to a new stimulus; for instance, more reps or a heavier weight. But DOMS can also arise in response to an entirely new movement or activity, such as going rock climbing for the first time. 

You don't need to push yourself to the point of DOMS every time you work out. In fact, most fitness trainers would advise against it, because severe or recurring DOMS can actually hinder your progress.  

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DOMS can occur after lifting heavier weight, completing more reps, or trying a new activity or movement for the first time. 

Westend61 / Getty Images

The other kind of muscle soreness

Before you go, you should know that there's another common type of muscle soreness that you can treat. Myofascial trigger points -- aka muscle knots -- are sensitive spots throughout soft tissue. 

Scientists don't yet understand the true nature of trigger points, but the most common explanation describes them as small areas of tightly contracted muscle that don't get enough blood flow.

Trigger points can arise after intense exercise like DOMS does, but unlike DOMS, trigger points last longer and lend themselves to irritating, persistent aches if they aren't dealt with. When poked or prodded, trigger points produce a sharp, shooting pain. 

You can also differentiate trigger points from DOMS by considering the surface area of your pain: Is it localized, such as up against your shoulder blade, or is it affecting an entire muscle group, such as your lower back?

The good news is you can easily self-treat trigger points without hurting your wallet.

Self-myofascial release, or foam rolling, is the least expensive, easiest way to work muscle knots out of your system. It's no magic cure, but it can help promote blood flow to trigger points and relax them out of their super-contracted state. Applying heat to your muscle knot may also help it relax. 

If you really want to dig into a muscle knot, try out percussive therapy, but be warned that these powerful massage guns might hurt tender patches of muscle. 

True medical therapy for trigger points, usually reserved for people with alarmingly high concentrations of trigger points or myofascial pain syndrome, goes beyond one-off methods like foam rolling to search for underlying medical factors. 

If you experience severe chronic muscle pain of any type, you should talk to a doctor as soon as you can. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.