If you’ve recently started or increased your exercise, and your body is feeling it, you might be wondering: Am I injured? Or am I just sore?
It’s normal to feel soreness, mild pain, or discomfort when you:
- Start exercising after a long time off (or for the first time!)
- Change the exercises in your program, or start a new sport
- Increase the volume or intensity in your current program
It can be difficult though, sometimes, to determine whether you’re just sore, or whether you’re dealing with an actual injury. Fortunately, there are some relatively clear signs that can help you figure it out!
“Normal” soreness from workouts
Pain and discomfort that occurs after a workout can affect joints, muscles, and connective tissues (and often a combination of these things). Your discomfort might might feel:
- Dull and achy
- Widespread, rather than in a specific point
- Generally tender
These feelings are the result of the muscle repairing and recovering from the effort of exercise. It’s perfectly normal for these to develop over and last anywhere from 12-72 hours, depending on how much your workout stressed your body. We commonly call this sort of post-exercise soreness DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).
Other signs that what you’re feeling is normal post-exercise pain:
- Muscles and joints look and function normally. There’s no swelling, redness, bruising, or feelings of joint instability or weakness.
- Movement like stretching or easy, warm-up type exercises actually feels a little good.
- You feel better after some DIY treatment like foam rolling or massage gun, stretching, an epsom salt/magnesium bath, or an ice bath.
- Feeling less strong or more fatigued than usual
- You’re not worried about moving, you just might be dreading it a little!
Signs that you might actually have an injury
Exercise related injuries are divided into two broad groups: acute and chronic injuries. Acute injuries happen suddenly, such as twisting an ankle, or falling over and spraining your wrist. Chronic injuries come on gradually, as a result of repeated stress on your muscles, joints, and connective tissues. These include things like stress fractures or tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow.
Signs that you have an actual injury, rather than just normal post-exercise soreness:
- You have pain that comes on suddenly during training or exercise
- Pain is sharp, stabbing, catching, or grinding, or feels like a zap, tingling, or numbness
- You have sharp pain that occurs when you stress or load the muscle or joint, but feels ok otherwise
- You are hesitant to use or move the painful area, perhaps expecting sharp pain or instability
- You feel like moving the area might cause it to give way
- You heard or felt a “pop”, followed by pain
- There is redness, swelling, or bruising around the painful area
- There’s no significant change to your pain after a couple of days rest
Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between normal post-exercise discomfort and soreness, and an actual injury, and these are by no means the only indicators that you have an injury. If you have any doubt about whether you should exercise with your level of pain, please don’t – seek help from an allied health practitioner. A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist is well placed to help you figure out what’s going on with your body, what you can do to keep training while you heal, and what you need to do for rehab. With the right plan, almost every injury can be nothing but a memory.