Muscle soreness following exercise is a common response to trying new activities, higher-intensity exercise, or just plain hard work, according to Nate Deblauw, PT, DPT. Those aches and pains you’re feeling are actually your muscles adapting to your workout. “During exercise, we create tiny muscle tears, which leads to an inflammation and rebuilding process in the muscle,” he says. “During this process, the tissue rebuilds to create a stronger muscle.”
But if those tiny muscle tears become too big, you can cross into muscle strain territory, which takes longer to heal than typical post-workout soreness and may require rest, ice, or other treatment, says Deblauw. Overtraining, poor form, accidents, or pushing yourself too hard can also lead to injury. But since it all hurts, how do you know if you’re dealing with run-of-the-mill soreness or a full-blown injury? We talked to physical therapists about how to tell the difference, plus what you should do to take care of it.
Look For Signs of Injury
It may sound obvious, but if something looks injured, then it’s probably an injury. “If the area is really warm, bright red, swollen, or there’s visible bruising, those are signs of serious inflammation and could indicate a more serious muscle tear or injury,” says Glick. In contrast, you typically can’t visibly spot your standard after-workout pangs.
Ask Yourself: What Type of Pain Are You Experiencing?
Do you feel achy and stiff? Or is your pain sharp and stabbing? Recognizing the difference can help you determine if you’re sore or if you’re injured. General aches in the parts of your body that worked hard during your latest workout is usually a standard response to intense activity, says Glick. But sharp pain can be a sign of injury, and it’s time to have your doctor take a look.
Notice When You're Feeling Pain
If you have that general achy feeling, like when you have trouble lowering down into a chair after an intense leg day, that’s likely just your muscles’ natural response to hard work, says Glick. But if you notice pain in a specific place on your body, that’s often an indicator of a specific muscle strain or injury, says Deblauw.
A good rule of thumb? If you can point to the exact area of pain, you might be dealing with an injury.
Clock When Your Aches and Pains Set In
When you feel pain and how fast it comes on can help you differentiate between soreness and injury. “Typically, a muscle strain or injury will be felt during the specific activity. Someone might feel this right away and notice acute discomfort or weakness,” says Deblauw. “Muscle soreness will occur after the activity, usually the next day.”
If you hear or feel a pop in your joint or muscle while you’re exercising, this could tip you off to potential injury, says Deblauw. But if achiness sets in slowly in the hours and days following your workout, you’re probably just experiencing straightforward soreness.
Track How Long Your Symptoms Last
How long your aches and pains last can be an effective way to judge if you’re experiencing temporary soreness or something more. For starters, there are two types of muscle soreness that any exerciser has likely experienced, says Deblauw. The first is acute muscle soreness, which is when you feel sore during and immediately after your workout. This is likely due to irritating lactic acid and potassium accumulating in your muscles, and your body should flush out the buildup in an hour or so, according to Deblauw. The other type is delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short, which sets in about a day after your workout and can last for up to three days afterwards, says Glick. All those microtears you get in your muscles when you exercise? That’s what causes DOMS, and they’ll usually heal themselves with time, some rest, and a nutritious diet, says Deblauw. You can also foam roll, ice, or lightly stretch the affected muscle to help promote healing, he suggests.
If you’re past that three-day mark and are still feeling pain, you may have an injury on your hands and it’s time to check in with an expert, says Glick. “And if you don’t see a 90 percent improvement in your symptoms after two weeks, go see a medical professional because that indicates that something isn’t getting better,” she adds.
Monitor How Your Discomfort Impacts Daily Activity
While regular muscle soreness might make walking up the stairs or sitting down tricky for a few days, you should still be able to function. But if you find your pain is preventing you from going about your day as usual, like calf pain that’s so severe that you can’t put weight on your leg or aches in your arm that make it impossible to lift everyday objects, then you’re dealing with a bigger problem, says Glick. And if going about daily activities actually makes your pain worse, that could also be a sign that you’re injured and need to seek help from a physical therapist or doctor, she advises
Keep Track of Any Persistent Pain
Maybe you’re a model patient and rested your sore quad for two weeks before hitting the pavement again. But if your pain keeps coming back despite taking adequate time to heal, that could be a sign that your aches are more than just post-workout soreness, says Glick. “If that happens, that’s when you know you have a mechanical issue that’s causing that problem,” she explains. “You’re putting a stress on your body that it can’t support, whether that's from overtraining, weakness, or form. You need to address the mechanical issues that are contributing to the problem if rest doesn’t fix it.”
If this sounds like you, Glick recommends visiting a physical therapist or other health professional to get the affected area checked out and address any underlying issues that may be contributing to your pain.