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How to Manage Sore Muscles and Joint Pain

You work hard all week, so when the weekend finally rolls around, you want to play just as hard. There's nothing like a few rounds of golf, a hike in the mountains, or an intense workout at the gym to help you feel recharged.

But all of that exercise can cause soreness and stiffness that shows up a day or two later. Don't get sidelined by muscle pain. Find out the causes and treatments so you can stay on your game.

woman rubbing shoulder

What's Causing My Sore Muscles?

It's normal to have sore muscles after you work out, play sports, or even do housework, especially if:

  • You did something you're not used to, like running a marathon when you normally jog just a few miles.
  • You suddenly kicked up your exercise intensity level or increased the length of your workout.
  • You did unusual exercises that lengthen instead of shorten your muscle, like walking downhill or extending your arm during a bicep curl.

These changes to your exercise routine can lead to tiny injuries in your muscle fibers and connective tissue. About a day later, you'll start to feel sore.

"We call that 'delayed onset' muscle soreness," says Ethel Frese, PT, associate professor of physical therapy at St. Louis University. "It peaks within about 48 hours, and then it will gradually get better."

The good news is that when you do the same activity again, your muscles will start to get used to it. "You will actually have no soreness or less soreness because now you've strengthened the muscle or connective tissue," says Allan H. Goldfarb, PhD. He's a professor and exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

What's Causing My Joint Pain?

When your joints feel sore and achy, that's usually a sign of osteoarthritis. This inflammatory condition becomes more common as you get older. The cartilage that normally cushions the joints wears away, leaving the joints inflamed and painful.

Joint pain can also be caused by overuse or injury, for example, tennis elbow or a knee injury caused by problem with a ligament or meniscus. Ligaments are bands of tissue that connect bones in your body. A meniscus is a rubbery disc that cushions your knee.

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Treating Sore Muscles and Joint Pain

One big question a lot of people have when they're nursing sore muscles is whether to use heat or ice. Experts say indirect ice -- an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel -- is best for immediate relief.

"Heat will feel good while it's on, but it's not going to lessen the damage or make it go away anytime soon," Frese says.

Goldfarb suggests you ice the sore area right after the activity to cut inflammation. Then use heat later to increase blood flow to the area. Heat also can help relieve joint pain.

If you get sore muscles once in a while, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve)to help ease the discomfort. Just be cautious about using NSAIDs regularly. Long-term use can interfere with your muscle's ability to repair itself, Goldfarb says.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist about any interactions these over-the-counter drugs may have with other medications you take. Also, you may need to avoid some medications if you have ulcers, kidney disease, liver disease, or other conditions.

Sometimes soothing sore muscles requires more than an ice pack or over-the-counter pain reliever. Muscle pain that comes on quickly and feels intense is a sign that you've injured yourself. Call your doctor if your pain is severe or lasts for more than a few days.

How Do I Prevent Sore Muscles and Joint Pain?

Experts used to recommend stretching before a workout to prevent sore muscles. But research shows that stretching ahead of time doesn't do much to prevent soreness or injury. Frese says it's better to get in a good warm-up before you exercise. Stretch later, when your muscles are already warm.

A couple of natural substances are touted for preventing sore muscles, including antioxidants like vitamin C. But check with your doctor before taking high doses of any vitamin. Serious exercisers might find relief from post-workout soreness by taking in some protein. A study of marines found that protein supplements helped sore muscles after intense exercise.

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Ease Into Exercise and Check With Your Doctor

One of the best ways to prevent sore muscles is by easing your way into your exercise routine.

"Start off with lighter exercise and gradually build up," Frese says.

If you have a medical condition or you're unsure about your health, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. He can help you find an exercise routine that’s safe and effective for you.

When you have joint pain, you may be tempted to curl up in bed. One of the best things you can do for your joints, though, is to exercise. "Our joints need to move to get nutrition," Frese says. Weight-bearing exercises can help strengthen the muscles that support the joint. Just watch that you don't exercise to the point of pain.

It also can help to work with a physical therapist, who can show you how to exercise safely and how to keep good posture so that you don't get injured or worsen joint pain.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on September 20, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Ethel Frese, PT, DPT, CCS, associate professor of physical therapy, St. Louis University. 

Allan H. Goldfarb, PhD, FACSM, professor, exercise physiologist, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 

Anderson, J. Journal of Athletic Training, July-September 2005.

Connolly, D. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, September 2006.

Flakoll, P. Journal of Applied Physiology, March 2004.

Herbert, R. and de Noronha, M. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, 2007.

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