Understanding Muscle Soreness – How Much is Too Much?

L. Nicole Krum, DPT
University of Maryland Medical Center

So you’ve decided to focus on getting a little healthier and you start an exercise program. Your first workout goes great, and you’re really proud of yourself. That is, until the next morning when you’re so sore you can barely get out of bed. You ask yourself, “What happened? Did I do something wrong? Did I do too much?” Don’t let muscle soreness after a workout get you down!

Here’s what you need to know to prevent that soreness from derailing your workout program.

Muscle soreness is a side effect of the stress put on muscles when you exercise. It is commonly called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, and it is completely normal. DOMS usually begins within 6-8 hours after a new activity or a change in activity, and can last up to 24-48 hours after the exercise. The muscle pain is due to inflammation within the muscle, which is one of the main triggers for this muscle soreness.

You are most likely to experience delayed muscle soreness after one of the following:

  • Starting an exercise or workout program for the very first time
  • Adding a new activity or exercise to your workout
  • Increasing the intensity of an exercise already in your program (increasing the amount of weight lifted, number of repetitions, or speed)
  • Performing the same activity over and over again without a sufficient rest break

All people are at risk for muscle soreness, even body builders and other professional athletes. The good news is that normal muscle soreness is a sign that you’re getting stronger, and is nothing to be alarmed about. During exercise, you stress your muscles and the fibers begin to break down. As the fibers repair themselves, they become larger and stronger than they were before. This means that your muscles will be better prepared to handle the stress the next time you work out.

The best way to relieve muscle soreness is to perform some gentle exercises, like walking or light stretching. It may seem counter intuitive, but the more you move, the faster the discomfort will go away! A heating pad or warm bath may also help to ease the discomfort temporarily, but ice is a better treatment in the long-run because it actually helps to decrease the swelling and inflammation in your muscles.

It sounds like muscle soreness is a positive thing, but here’s where it can get a little complicated. Mild to moderate muscle soreness is common and generally harmless. On the other hand, severe muscle soreness can be damaging and dangerous. It’s important to know the difference between reasonable muscle soreness caused by exercise, and pain due to overuse or muscle injury.

How much pain is too much?

  • If the pain you’re experiencing prevents you from carrying out daily activities associated with living or working, then the exercise was too much.
  • If the discomfort lasts for more than 72 hours, then the exercise was too much.

How can you tell if your soreness is the normal kind of soreness? 

  • If the pain begins during or immediately after the exercise, it is not normal. Pain that occurs during an exercise is a sign that there is a problem with the exercise. This type of pain should be seen as a signal from your body to stop the activity before serious joint or muscle damage occurs.

In severe cases, the muscles can break down so much that you can become very ill and cause damage to your kidneys. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following after a workout or activity that causes muscle soreness:

  • Severe unbearable pain
  • Severely swollen limbs
  • Loss of joint range of motion due to severe swelling
  • Dark colored urine or decreased production of urine

If you’re thinking about quitting your exercise program because of muscle soreness, try your best to work through the first few days without getting discouraged. It WILL get better and your muscles will thank you later.