Woman holding sore back muscles.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

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You have likely experienced the evil of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) several times before.  It is the intense feeling of pain in certain used muscles around your body after a hard workout.

It becomes most noticeable 2 – 3 days later when getting out of bed is suddenly a painful challenge, showering becomes a nightmare as we struggle to lift our arms high enough to wash above our hips and we might even have to slide down the stairs on our… well, you get the idea.

If you have not experienced it before then those who have will certainly inform you that DOMS is not very pleasant.  Despite this, it is nothing that needs to cause you any real concern.  You are not in any danger and your long term health is not effected by this natural inconvenience – apart from some unfortunate short term agony, you will be fine.

DOMS is most likely to occur when your muscles are used in a different way than they are used to or at a higher intensity for a longer period of time than you would usually perform.

More about delayed onset muscle soreness

DOMS can result in several debilitating factors, including decreased muscle power and coordination, increased soreness, swelling and stiffness (of muscles, not joints).

It does not matter what your fitness level or experience is, anyone who performs strenuous or unaccustomed exercise is likely to suffer from DOMS.  The extent of DOMS entirely depends on the level of physical exertion applied and the length of time performing an activity.

Research suggests eccentric muscle contraction triggers the most painful DOMS. Eccentric movements cause the muscle to forcefully contract while it lengthens e.g. lowering weights or the downward phase of squats.

What causes pain in muscles?

There is no definitive answer regarding the reason DOMS occurs and research continues to grow in this area of interest. Despite this, studies conducted so far have uncovered some very solid theories and widely accepted explanations:

Overloading muscle fibres:

One of the most commonly believed mechanisms of delayed onset muscle soreness comes down to the damage caused to muscle fibres during loading of excessive weight and force. It is understood that the muscle fibres and membranes become exposed to micro tears, which contribute to soreness.  Micro tears are a natural occurrence when excessive load is applied, this allows the muscle to repair and rebuild stronger to cope with future demands.

Biochemical factors of muscle soreness:

Research highlights the content of muscle enzymes found in the blood increases up to 10 times greater during intense exercise. This indicates that the muscle cell membranes are destroyed (they burst) under the exertion of eccentric activity. This further adds to the overall muscle damage and soreness that requires repair post exercise.

Inflammation and Oedema:

Once micro tears have occurred, and cell membranes have burst in the muscle, inflammation arises.  This leads to oedema (swelling). It is not serious and causes no harm to your health, in fact, it is quite the opposite as this process is a natural one that helps to heal any damaged muscle tissue.

How can we reduce the effects of DOMS?

Because there is no definitive answer as to why DOMS even occurs at present, there is no single answer that can be given to help reduce the negative effects of it.  Unfortunately it is something that you may just have to put up with from time to time if you change up your routine or begin exercise after a period of time off.

DOMS and muscle soreness in general is a unique sign that your muscles are actually being used and have the potential to improve in size and quality. As painful as DOMS may be, it let’s us know we are alive!


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