Treating Muscle Soreness:
A How-To Guide

As far as treating muscle soreness after exercise (delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS), sorry, there's little you can do. There are a few tricks for making it less painful, but no way to truly speed up recovery.

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But in a nutshell, those tricks for getting over your soreness are...


  • Stretching
  • Hot Baths
  • Getting Stronger
  • Light Exercise


Here's a list of common (and not so common) remedies for muscle soreness and a summary of how well each one works. You might find one that works great for you.


How to go about treating muscle soreness...

Get Stronger

This is the only remedy that is 100% effective for treating muscle soreness: get stronger so the same level of workouts don't leave you sore. This is called the Repeated-Bout Effect in scientific circles, but it's common sense; if you haven't been jogging and start up again, you will be more sore when you start up again than after a few weeks of jogging.

If you keep exercising at the same level of intensity, you won't get sore. You won't get any stronger either, but you won't get sore.


Epsom Salt Soak

Soaking in hot water with Epsom salt is a widely accepted method of treating muscle soreness and easing its pain by drawing out lactic acid.[1] Touted as an effective home remedy, 'everybody' just seems to trust it.

However, there's no actual scientific evidence that it does anything. And explanations such as 'osmosis' and 'drawing out lactic acid' don't make sense: lactic acid is removed from your muscles by your body by about an hour after exercise, and osmosis is the process of water diffusing across cell membranes, not muscle toxins of some kind.

But, it does feel nice to soak in a hot bath and the Epsom salt makes the water feel soft and relaxing. Even if there's no scientific evidence of real benefit, it can still be fun and relaxing.


Heat! - Hot Bath/Shower/Sauna

While fun, getting hot isn't necessarily a cure for sore muscles. Getting the blood flowing into them and warming them up does feel good though.

This works to varying degrees for most people. I find a hot tub quite helpful and very relaxing, but not all people do.

But after you get out of the bath, the effects will fade within an hour or so. If it appeals to you and gives you benefits, try it.

I love to take a hot bath to get over sore muscles!


Cold - Ice Packs and Ice

Ice can be used for muscle soreness, since it slows down blood flow and can dull the pain. However, it's best for acute injuries (a sudden injury, like throwing out your back) rather than muscle soreness.

Ice slows down blood flow and reduces inflammation. But, inflammation is just what you need for treating muscle soreness! The inflammation response is designed to channel blood toward your injury and help heal it.

For DOMS, which usually resolves in a few days, the inflammation which contributes to the soreness can be very beneficial. Ice probably isn't the best thing.


Light Exercise

Exercise?!?! For treating muscle soreness?! No, it's not completely crazy, but not very helpful either.

Exercise will get blood flowing into your muscles again and warm them up. So, like the hot bath/shower/sauna trick - it'll take some of the edge off. Concentric exercise is especially good, since that doesn't contribute to muscle soreness.[2]

It wears off pretty soon after you stop exercising and it takes uncommon guts to get up and, for example, do some light jogging when you're painful, sore, and don't want to go anywhere near the gym.

Another *fun* side effect is that if you exercise too intensely, you'll be even more sore afterward. And it'll take even longer to recover. So, be nice to yourself - just something light to warm you up.


Stretching

Stretching is another common remedy for treating muscle soreness. And it can do some good.

Studies have shown that stretching can decrease delayed onset muscle soreness aches and pains, though it won't actually speed the recovery along.[3] You'll just feel better but, hey, that's pretty good ;-)

But be careful - too much stretching can also give you DOMS.[4] It's best to go easy and stretch through the range of motion that feels good for you.


Massage

Again, a great massage feels great. You get to be fussed over and have your muscles kneaded and pressed and beaten. It's wonderful, especially if you're achy...

But massage will just make you feel better. It won't do much, if anything, for treating muscle soreness by speeding your recovery. Sorry, kneading your muscles won't make them heal any faster.

However, if you have any trigger points in your muscles then a good massage can work them out and do wonders for you...


Trigger Point Therapy / Myofacial Release

Trigger points are hard knots of muscle formed when your muscles are subject to undue strain, sitting/sleeping in awkward positions, etc. They are not a component of DOMS, but can occur after a heavy workout that also triggers DOMS.

I like them because they really work for me, and they have a solid basis in western medicine. If you're up for some heavy reading you can take a look at Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, Vols. 1 & 2 by Janet G. Travell & David G. Simons who pioneered work in this field.

Massaging for trigger point therapy won't affect DOMS, but is useful for treating muscle soreness that won't go away & other lingering aches and pains. Click on the link above for a more in-depth discussion of trigger point therapy.


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) & Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese Medicine promises to cure a host of ailments. TCM includes herbal remedies, acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion, cupping, etc.

Again, sad news; TCM hasn't been found to be very effective for treating muscle soreness. And of the studies out there, many have serious methodological flaws. Also, there is the fact that the entire paradigm of Chinese medicine is based on qi, which can't be detected by instruments.

However, there is some hope; TCM sports medicine offers some remedies that I have found to be helpful. These aren't that great for DOMS, but I have found them very effective for aches and pain that stay far longer than they should.

Die Da Jiu (跌打酒, lit. "Hit fall wine") is a liniment that you massage onto the painful part of your body for treating muscle soreness, joint pain, etc. There are tons of different recipes around from different TCM and martial arts teachers, each purporting to be the 'best'. I've tried a few, and they all work pretty well to get rid of aches for me.

You can go online or drop by an apothecary in a Chinatown near you and buy some for around $5. It won't hurt you that much to try, and you might find it helps quite a lot. At the least, you end up with a somewhat exotic massage oil.


As a side note, never place Die Da Jiu on open wounds andnever, ever, drink it. It has a strong alcohol base and will burn like the bejeesus on wounds, and the herbal and animal ingredients make it extremely toxic to drink.


I don't know whether it's the secret herbs in the liniment, the massaging it into my muscles, the relaxed process of applying it, or my martial arts background giving me a nice placebo effect. And, for the moment, I don't really care; I like it, and it works OK for treating muscle soreness.


Green-Lipped Mussel Oil/Supplement

Green-lipped mussels are found in New Zealand and have been touted as an effective anti-inflammatory. They provide a small amount of relief for symptoms of arthritis and joint pain, but nothing to write home about.[5]

They have also been listed as something to help recovery from DOMS more quickly, but the science just isn't there.6 Maybe more dramatic benefits will be revealed in the future, but for now it's something to try only if you're really curious.

Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!

• Click here to learn more about Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and Treating Muscle Aches & Pains!

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Treating Muscle Soreness: A How-To Guide
References:

1. Hoffman, Matthew, and Eric Metcalf. 2004. 1,801 Home Remedies: Trustworthy Treatments For Everyday Health Problems. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest. Pp. 396.
2. Tiidus, Peter M. 2008. Skeletal Muscle Damage and Repair. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Pp. 67-8.
3. Ylinen, Jari. 2008. Stretching Therapy: For Sport and Manual Therapies. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier. Pp. 25.
4. Ibid.
5. Talbott, Shawn M., and Kerry Hughes. 2007. The Health Professional's Guide To Dietary Supplements. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Pp. 141.
6. Ibid.

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