How to Know the Difference Between Soreness and Pain

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Our physical therapy team helps patients of all activity levels identify and overcome pain and injury. Athletes in particular are accustomed to soreness and aches and pains, but how do you know when soreness is a more serious problem that could indicate an injury?

Follow our tips on determining the difference between soreness and pain, and learn when to pay a visit to a physician or physical therapist.

Length of Time Matters

The key thing to note when differentiating between soreness and pain is time. Natural soreness from physical activity has a much shorter duration of time- typically a few days.

Soreness should last anywhere from one to three days, whereas pain may come on quickly while engaged in physical activity or shortly after. Pain will typically linger past three days and make it difficult to partake in normal, daily activities.

“When soreness is accompanied by sharp pains or aches that continue to linger on after a few days, it may be cause for concern and time to see a physician,” says Rebound physical therapist Mike Baer. “When you’re feeling painful sensations localized in your joints and muscles, you may have an injury.”

It is important to note that each individual’s body reacts differently to the stresses of physical activity.

Post-Activity Pain vs. Soreness

After strenuous exercise, or exercise after a hiatus from physical activity, it is natural to experience muscle soreness. Typically, muscles are tender to the touch or burn slightly with movement.

“During exercise, we fatigue our muscles, and the effects usually aren’t felt until a day or two afterward,” says Baer. “Micro tears in the muscle occur during exercise, which is what causes the dull aches, soreness and muscle weakness. Most people feel a peak of soreness the following day, and the discomfort gradually goes away. A red flag indicator of injury is when discomfort and sharp pain are persistent, whether you’re resting or active.”

If the pain persists past one to two weeks, or is immediate and severe, you may have damaged muscles, tissues or joints

Ways to Stay Ahead of Soreness

“Some of the best things you can do to manage soreness include knowing your body’s limits, conditioning your body for the activity ahead  and stretching post-workout,” says Baer.

In addition, rest, hydration and proper nutrition play important roles in helping muscles recover. Alternating activity types and allowing days of rest are key in helping your body stay ahead of soreness and avoid pain and injury.

Ways to Relieve Pain

Ice & Heat Therapy

Ice and heat therapy can often help relieve pain, depending on the severity of the injury, when done properly.

“Ice should be applied to an acute or new injury, like a muscle or joint sprain,” says Baer. “Ice helps constrict blood vessels to reduce swelling and pain.”

With ice therapy, you should be cautious about the amount of time you spend icing the injury. Best practice is to limit sessions to 20 minutes to avoid causing tissue or skin damage.

“Heat is typically used for chronic pain or conditions, old injuries and stiffness,” says Baer. “Heat therapy is beneficial for stiff joints and muscle pain because it allows blood vessels to relax and increases circulation- having the opposite effect of ice therapy. Heat can be very soothing for tight muscles and painful joints, but we do not recommend applying heat to a fresh injury.”

With heat therapy, limit sessions to 20 minutes and be mindful to the level of heat/how it is administered to avoid blisters and burns.

Physical Therapy

“When it comes to persistent pain that does not dissipate in one to two weeks, it is best to identify the problem as quickly as possible by visiting with a physician or physical therapist,” says Baer.

Physical therapy can help you identify the body mechanics that led to the injury, help you manage pain and learn ways to overcome injury and prevent future injury. A physical therapist will work with you to create a recovery plan that suits your needs and focuses on conditioning and strengthening your muscles and joints.

If you are experiencing prolonged pain, please do not hesitate to request an examination from a Rebound physician or physical therapist.

Related Rebound Resources:

When to Ice or Heat an Injury

Five Quick Exercise Tips for Knee Pain

Common Ways to Alleviate Shoulder Pain & Strengthen Shoulders

Physical Therapy 101