What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: Lindsay D.
  • Last Modified Date: 16 August 2019
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Soreness and stiffness following a workout is far from rare. In fact, the pain sets in usually between 48 to 72 hours after the activity – sometimes it can be felt as early as 12 hours later. This discomfort is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. Don’t worry, even the most elite athletes can feel the pain.

For years, experts thought delayed onset muscle soreness was caused by a buildup of lactic acid, a chemical produced in the muscles with metabolism and exercise. But studies now show lactic acid clears quickly and levels return to normal after an hour, even after the most strenuous of exercise routines.

Today, delayed onset muscle soreness is thought to be caused by microscopic tears in the muscle fibers, or microtears. These miniscule tears happen when the muscles are pushed beyond the norm. The pain experienced depends on the type, duration and exertion of exercise, and is delayed. It is also temporary.


Delayed onset muscle soreness often causes muscle stiffness or tightness as well as tender areas, especially in the muscle belly, where the bulk of muscle can be felt. Muscles can sometimes tighten to the point of spasms, which are involuntary contractions. There can be inflammation or swelling in the muscles and there may be a small loss of mobility to the area. General fatigue and weakness are often common side effects of DOMS. Symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness should subside without treatment within seven to ten days. If pain persists, seek medical attention to rule out a more serious injury.

The best way to avoid this muscle soreness is through preventative measures. Proper workout designs that include a warm up, a stretching routine, and a cool down prepare the body for extra muscle stress. Proper hydration even before exercising is also important. Introduce changes slowly and avoid adding too many changes at once. Cross training is an invaluable tool to challenge and develop strength to minimize the effects of DOMS.

DOMS, under normal circumstances is no cause for alarm. The nagging discomfort typically dissipates within seven to ten days, so waiting it out is an option. Many experts encourage light workouts, also known as active recovery, to keep the muscles limber and to increase blood flow to the microfibers, which may speed healing. Many recommended activities during the pain include low impact aerobics and yoga. Stretching, however, has become a controversial treatment plan. Since the muscles already have microtears, stretching it even slightly too aggressively can cause further injury.

As with any injury, inflammation, or swelling, is typical. Using RICE, or rest, ice, compression and elevation, can decrease the swelling and pain. The use of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen also decrease pain and swelling. Massage is also an effective way to help the body combat the pain and inflammation associated with delayed onset muscle soreness. However, massage can only provide comfort. It cannot affect muscle function.

While delayed onset muscle soreness can put a damper on fitness goals, it is only a temporary problem. In fact, experiencing this nagging discomfort is a good thing. The soreness indicates the workout routine challenged those muscles and it is a sign that the muscles are, in reality, getting stronger.



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