Soreness vs Pain – How To Know the Difference & How To Respond

Nothing like a little Pandemic to get you finally working out? The fact is, now is a damn good time for it. Like everyone on the planet right now, you’ve got your fair share of stress, and like most, some extra time on your hands with little option of personal interaction.

Congrats on getting back on the wagon, but let’s set some ground rules.

Let’s start with ‘No Pain, No Gain’? It’s the quintessential rallying cry comeback to anyone who’s hit that intersect point between physical exertion and mental exhaustion, and uttered the phrase “I can’t do it…”

At best, it steels your resolve to higher levels of physical achievement. At worst, you just sprained/strained/injured/ruptured something that’s going to take your workout level to zero.

So how to tell the difference? Understanding this will start with understanding that soreness and pain are not mutually inclusive. In fact, in order to ensure you’re getting the most of your work out it’s imperative to learn how to tell the difference between muscle soreness (good fatigue) and pain (body harm).

Here’s our Quick Four breakdown guide on telling the difference, and what to do about it.

1 – GENERAL VS PINPOINTED

When you work out, you’re literally tearing muscle fibers…in a good way! It’s this stress-repair-recovery cycle that your body goes into that allows your muscles to come back stronger. Achiness in the areas that were engaged during the work out is completely normal. It can start as early as several hours after you exercise, and can last up to four days post workout. Most experts agree that it’s even okay to continue working out while you are sore – just try to alternate muscle groups from day to day…i.e. arms one day, then legs the next, and so on…

Pain on the other hand, that can be immediately pinpointed to a location such as a joint, tendon, or even a bone – that’s a red flag to stop. Give yourself a good couple of minutes to listen to your body. If the pain was caused by a certain movement, consider trying things again a bit more carefully, such as with less weight, a slower speed, less dramatic stretching, etc. If the pain doesn’t return, consider this your body’s warning shot that you’ve found a threshold you’re not in shape enough to cross yet.

2 – SHARP VERSUS DULL

When it comes to muscle growth, a dull pain is a good pain. Sometimes soreness isn’t just tenderness, it can also be a tightness of the immediate muscle group along with an overall general feeling of stiffness. If this is you, congratulations – you’ve earned yourself a proper hot tub soaking, some generous couch time with a cold pack and maybe (if you’re really feeling it next day) an NSAID to take the edge off that inflammation.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a localized area that has a sharp radiation, or a stabbing, stinging or burning, you’ve got an injury. Under no circumstances should you continue to do any exercising in that area. If you find that normal movements, such as putting weight on the area, is causing pain, you should seek medical attention.

3 –  IT ONLY HURTS WHEN I LAUGH

This one is short but sweet. When your muscles are feeling properly sore, they let you know when you move. Did you just break your runner’s PB? Expect to hear about it next day when you’re lumbering up those stairs. Got some serious sweat on with your kettlebells? Reaching for the remote a few hours later is going to remind you. Basically any time you engage those previously exercised muscle groups, they will kindly announce the presence of their soreness to you. When this happens, consider doing some light stretching, and/or take a page from the suggestions we mentioned in #2 up above.

An injury on the other hand, has a lingering pain regardless of movement. If you’re sitting still, it hurts. If you move, it really hurts. Take heed of these warnings and get yourself some feedback from a medical professional. The longer you let it go, the worse it can degrade.

4 – TIME IS TELLING YOU

If you recall in the beginning of this article, we mentioned that muscle soreness can start as early as a few hours after your work out, and potentially can last for up to four days. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short. While everybody’s recovery rate is different, that four day rule of thumb has stood the test of time as an established average. But it’s not just the length of time that’s telling, it’s also the quality of the pain level. Most muscle soreness will be at its worst usually within the first 24 to 48 hours. With active individuals who work out more often, the soreness can sometimes seem to “skip” a day, and come visiting 2 days later. However long the period from when you start to feel that tight achiness, each day (assuming you’re getting good rest and eating well inbetween) should see improvement in how you feel.

Injuries on the other hand, especially critical ones such as sprains, ruptures or hyper-extensions will linger well past four days. More telling than their length, the level of pain will not radically subside from the area in question. For this reason, you really need a second opinion.

Understandably these are trying times for the medical community, and with shelter-in-place rules and social distancing the new norm, realizing you have overdone it and caused yourself an injury can lead to a real dilemma.

Luckily there are plenty of technology options these days. Popular health apps like AskMD and HealthTap…or if you don’t feel comfortable trusting anyone else but your PHP, consider asking them if you can set up a video chat so you can face time with them.

So kudos on you bro, for deciding to step up, and do your part to come out of this situation a little healthier than you came into it. Just remember, be mindful of what your body is telling you.

Now, go crush some personal goals…