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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 recommends icing the sore area right after the activity to reduce inflammation then using 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 ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin to help relieve the discomfort. Just be cautious about using NSAIDs regularly. Long-term NSAID use can interfere with your muscles' ability to repair themselves, says Goldfarb.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist about any interactions these over-the-counter drugs may have with other medications you take. People with a history of certain medical conditions (such as ulcers, kidney disease, and liver disease) may be advised to avoid some medications.

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. Yet research has shown that stretching ahead of time doesn't do much to prevent soreness or injury. Frese says it's actually better to get in a good warm-up before you exercise and save the stretching for afterward, when your muscles are already warm.

A couple of natural substances have been 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 beefing up on protein. A study of marines found that taking protein supplements reduced sore muscles after intense exercise. 

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. Then you're much less likely to cause the microtrauma," Frese says. Goldfarb recommends increasing your exertion level by only about 10% at a time.

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

When you have joint pain, you may be tempted to curl up in bed. Actually, though, one of the best things you can do for your joints 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 maintain good posture so that you don't get injured or worsen joint pain.

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