Is It Pain or Muscle Soreness?

For safe, injury-free exercise, it’s important to be aware of the difference between exercise-related muscular soreness or pain.  Sore calves after a strenuous uphill hike is healthy and expected. Sharp pain in the knees is not and may be a sign of an injury.

We all have an activity threshold. This threshold is determined by things like our age, baseline strength, how often we exercise and at what level. If we want to see physical results, we need to gradually increase our threshold. If we stay on the safe side of our threshold, we experience muscle soreness. If we push too far over our threshold, we experience pain.

So how do you tell the difference between muscle soreness and pain?

Muscle soreness starts during exercise or 24-72 hours afterwards, lasts 2-3 days, and improves with stretching and movement, but gets worse when you’re sitting still. Your muscles might feel achy, tender to the touch, or a little tight when you’re not moving around, and you might feel some burning and fatigue when you exercise.

Pain can occur during exercise or within 24 hours of the activity, in the muscles or joints.  It is sharp, worsening with movement and continued exercise. Ice and rest may help briefly, but pain will return and may linger.

While you can return to exercising once soreness decreases, pain can indicate something more serious is wrong. Continuing to exercise when pain is present can cause or worsen an injury.

If you are experiencing pain, a physical therapist can identify the cause and treat it, so you can safely return to work, play, and that spin class faster.  Visiting for an assessment before you begin a new exercise routine can help prevent pain and injury altogether, for maximum results.


Soreness vs. Pain: What’s the Difference?  American Physical Therapy Association.


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