Exercising despite muscle pain – whether this can be harmful depends on whether it is due to muscle soreness or a strain. How the two differ.
Practically everyone has had muscle soreness after a strong and unusual strain on their muscles – for example after a long break from training. The affected muscles hurt – especially when stretched – and are stiff, tense and sensitive to pressure.
What exactly causes muscle soreness is not clearly understood. The muscle pain is probably caused by tiny tears in muscle fibers and/or connective tissue as a result of strong muscle contractions – with a subsequent inflammatory reaction and fluid accumulation (edema), which can cause the muscle to swell.
Overstretching of the muscles, so-called muscle strains, also occurs frequently in sports – for example during sprints, quick stops or changes of direction. Like sore muscles, a strain sometimes causes severe muscle pain as well as hardening and tenderness of the affected muscles.
Unlike sore muscles, the way in which muscle strains develop is known. The overstretching causes tiny damage to the small units of muscle fibers: the myofibrils. However, a strain does not cause major damage to the muscle fibers or even the entire muscle – such as a muscle fiber or muscle tear.
Strains show up immediately, muscle soreness later
The tiny damage that underlies a sore muscle or a strain cannot be detected with the usual examinations for muscle injuries (such as ultrasound or MRI ). Nevertheless – and despite some similar symptoms – the two can usually be easily distinguished from each other:
- Muscle soreness occurs with a delay – at the earliest a few hours after the initial strain, sometimes even after up to three days.
- A strain immediately causes aching pain in the affected muscle, which slowly but steadily increases.
This difference is important for those affected to know whether they need to adapt their behavior. Regardless of whether it’s a sore muscle or a strain – both usually heal on their own. But a pulled muscle is temporarily less resilient and needs a break from sports. If you don’t stick to it, you risk a torn muscle fiber as a complication .
Strain requires a break from sports
In the event of a muscle strain, experts recommend that the first measures be to immediately stop all physical activity, cool the affected part of the body, apply an elastic bandage and elevate the part of the body. This approach is also known as the PECH scheme (pause, ice, compression, elevation).
In the event of a strain, complete immobilization of the affected body part is only necessary for the first few days. Afterwards – if the pain allows it – light movement exercises are possible again. However, it is advisable to avoid full strain on the affected muscle for a total of around six weeks.
If you have sore muscles, you can still exercise
On the other hand, sore muscles usually go away after seven days at the latest, without ever causing any damage. Experience has shown that this applies even if the causal burden repeats itself. So if you continue to train despite sore muscles, you don’t have to worry that the symptoms will worsen or that the healing time will be extended.If you have any doubts as to whether muscle pain is just a harmless muscle soreness or a strain, you should seek medical advice to be on the safe side. However, most people learn early on to distinguish sore muscles from more serious muscle injuries.