You’ve felt it before – the ache/agony that comes after a hard workout/painting the house/a long walk. The scream of your muscles telling you to go back to bed, not to move, and recover. Perhaps you have a hot tub/sauna/steam room in your abode. Perhaps, like me, you do not. And perhaps like me, you complain, complain, complain in the hope of receiving some sympathy from your friends, parents or partner. I usually get very little.
My good friend asked if there was anything that can be done for sore muscles or more technically, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). I did a quick search of peer-reviewed literature to see if there is anything out there to stop the hurt.
First of all what is DOMS? It is muscle pain and tenderness that develops around 8-24 hours after exercise. It typically ensues after eccentric exercises – when your muscle elongates while under tension. For example, if you are doing bicep curls it is when you move the forearm away (down) from the shoulder towards your waist.
There have been a few studies to look at potential prevention strategies to alleviate and/or reduce DOMS. One such study looked at massage and whether it helped in the prevention of DOMS. Participants performed eccentric exercises utilizing the elbow flexors and received massage on one arm (3 hours after exercise) and none on the other. They found that DOMS was significantly less in the massage condition with a lower subjective rating of soreness, plasma creatine kinase activity (an indicator of muscle cell necrosis), and upper arm circumference (indicator of inflammation). The authors suggest that massage may alleviate swelling by increasing blood flow to the damaged area, clearing out old and brining in new macrophages and neutrophils (which help to engulf and digest cellular debris). However, research recently published from Queen’s Kinesiology department suggests otherwise – that massage isn’t necessarily associated with the clearance of enzymes and lactate (potential contributors to DOMS). Thus, the verdict is still out on whether massage is an effective tool.
Another group looked at whether popping pills (i.e. Ibuprofen) 30 minutes prior and 6 hours up to 72 hours following exercise assisted in the reduction of DOMS. Surprisingly, they found quite the opposite. Creatine kinase levels along with serum urea levels were actually elevated in participants who took drugs. Thus, the drug merely blunted the symptom without curing the cause.
Fish oil and isoflavones (known to modulate the inflammatory response) were used in yet another study trying to find the cure for DOMS. Participants were supplemented with their respective pills 30 days prior to the exercise session. After performing 50 maximal eccentric contractions subjects returned 2, 4, and 7 days after the original exercise bout to measure muscle soreness, upper arm circumference, range of motion and strength. Blood samples were also taken prior to supplementation, before the exercise bout, and 3 h, 24 h, 48 h, and 72 h after the exercise bout. They were looking at inflammatory markers as well as our good friend, creatine kinase. The results – no significant treatment effect between groups – more simply, the supplements didn’t do a thing for preventing DOMS.
So all in all it appears that we just have to suck it up and suffer. I know, I know – you were hoping for some miracle cure. But there isn’t one, yet. If anyone has any personal stories, or conflicting scientific evidence to what I have mentioned here please do pass it along. I would love to find a solution to this recurring problem (I get sore after almost every workout).
I guess the only thing you can do is relish in the pain. You worked hard. You are making your body stronger. And that is something to be proud of.
Lenn et al. 2002. The effects of fish oil and isoflavone on delayed onset muscle soreness. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 34;1605-1613.
Donnelly et al. 1990. Effects of ibuprofen on exercise-induced muscle soreness and indices of muscle damage. Journal of Sports Medicine: 24;191-195.
Zainuddin Z et al. 2005. Effects of massage on delayed-onset muscles soreness, swelling and recovery of muscle function. Journal of Athletic Training: 40;174-180.