Why So Sore? The Curious Case of DOMS

For many avid exercisers, delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is used as an indicator of a successful workout; however, for those unfamiliar with its symptoms or who have an underlying injury or pain condition, DOMS can be a discouraging, unpleasant, and sometimes frightening experience. DOMS is defined as muscle pain, stiffness, swelling, and weakness beginning 12-24 hours after a workout, peaking around 48 hours, and persisting up to 7 days. It is typically a subclinical condition, meaning most cases resolve without the need for medical intervention. Most people have experienced such soreness at some point in their lives — whether due to starting a new exercise routine or from pulling weeds in the garden on the first day of spring. My goal is to demystify* DOMS and provide tips on reducing your chances of having your fitness or rehabilitation goals derailed by this temporary condition. By the end, you’ll feel confident to march on with exercise despite the soreness!

*Spoiler alert: there is currently no scientific consensus on the specific cause of DOMS.

 Break Down to Build Up

To provide some context for the discussion that follows, it will be helpful to take you through an abbreviated journey (think: The Magic School Bus) from the moment you perform an exercise, such as a biceps curl, through the first few days of recovery. When you lift a heavy weight for the first time in a while, you inflict exercise-induced damage, also known as microtrauma, to the muscle tissue. While this may sound scary it is a normal, typically healthy form of “injury” that leads to desirable adaptations including increases in muscle strength and size. (Curiously, the extent of microtrauma does not seem to correlate to the severity of DOMS1.)

In the hours/days that follow, like an episode of Extreme Makeover: Muscle Edition, your body gets to work not only repairing the affected tissue but making improvements to ensure that the next time you work out you’re prepared for the challenge. It accomplishes this through the action of immune cells, inflammatory enzymes, and genetic activity. The nerves and blood vessels that supply the muscle also become more active, increasing strength and power in as few as 1-2 weeks. Within 6-8 weeks of repeated exercise, visible changes such as increased muscle mass (AKA hypertrophy) become evident.

Getting Back to DOMS

Now let’s zoom back in to what’s going on the first 2-3 days following your biceps curl when you’re so sore that brushing your teeth is a struggle. I’d like to reiterate here that researchers are not in full agreement about the mechanism of DOMS. However, it’s still worth discussing a few of the more plausible hypotheses.

(Debunked) Theory #1: Soreness is the result of accumulated lactic acid in the exercised muscle. This is a popular one but is not accurate. While lactic acid plays a role in the burning sensation that occurs while you are lifting weights, it is not directly involved with the development of DOMS.

Theory #2: The aforementioned muscular microtrauma results in inflammation, sensitizing nerve endings and leading to pain. While this seems plausible, several studies have shown that the level of inflammation actually increases following subsequent workouts despite decreased levels of microtrauma and soreness2. It’s worth pointing out that while inflammation often gets a bad rap, it’s an essential part of recovery — it’s your body’s modus operandi for healing tissue and adapting to life’s stresses. Certain elements of the inflammatory process may be involved with DOMS, but inflammation alone does not seem to be an adequate explanation.

Theory #3: Physical and metabolic stresses during exercise cause microtrauma to the nerves that attach to the involved muscle fibers, which are then sensitized by a number of molecules spurred into action by the repair/rebuild process. This theory is hot off the press, having been published shortly before this post (September 2020)3. The idea is that, following exercise, nerves (depicted by the green and orange lines in the image below) are traumatized in a manner similar to muscles. Then, increased levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) and other restorative compounds sensitize the injured nerve endings. These compounds are distinct from inflammation, distinguishing this theory from the one above.

Theory #2 and #3 both have merit and the truth may be a combination of these factors. Nerve growth factor has been experimentally validated as a sensitizer of nerve endings and is produced in response to exercise, so this is likely to be a factor in DOMS. However, the extent to which muscle or nerve microtrauma and inflammation are involved is unclear.

If at first you’re sore, try, try again

Even though we don’t know exactly why DOMS happens, we do know that it’s a temporary condition as part of your body’s adaptive process. By executing these steps to recovery like a well-trained military unit, your body is able to adapt to new loads with remarkable efficiency. Within 1 week, a protective buffer allows you to repeat bouts of exercise with decreased soreness. This shield of DOMS protection can last as long as 4-12 weeks post-exercise and is referred to as the repeated bout effect4. The repeated bout effect is dose-dependent, meaning the greater the intensity or duration your first time exercising, the more protection you have for future efforts. However, even low loads (as few as 2 repetitions) can reduce the risk of DOMS the next time you work out. This should be encouraging to those who may be reluctant to start or continue exercising due to DOMS.

Can I work out when sore?

Yes. Exercising a sore muscle in moderation is not harmful to the muscle tissue nor the recovery process, though you may find you’re unable to exert as much force due to the strength deficits that accompany DOMS. Aerobic exercise is totally safe and will often help reduce the intensity of soreness in the affected areas5. While there is not much evidence to say that you shouldn’t work out a sore muscle, if you’re experiencing undue pain or fatigue while doing so it may be best to target another muscle group.

Chasing soreness

While the very first workout for an untrained individual is likely to result in DOMS, the repeated bout effect protects from perpetual soreness, and individual factors such as genetics also impact one’s susceptibility6. Furthermore, certain muscle groups are more likely to experience soreness than others. The fact is there isn’t much evidence that soreness is necessary for increasing strength or building muscle7. On the contrary, there is convincing evidence that strength and size can increase without muscle soreness8. So you don’t have to go searching for soreness to make gains.

Isn’t there a magic pill I can take?

Much time, effort, and money has been spent to reduce the incidence and severity of DOMS. However, many of these remedies have been deemed ineffective by science. For instance, stretching before and/or after exercise does not prevent DOMS9. Nor does massage10, ice11, Epsom salt12, or bee venom13 (yes, that’s a real study). This doesn’t mean that a good massage, stretch, ice bath, hot pack, (…or bee sting?) won’t curb symptoms once they set in. They just won’t reduce your chances of getting DOMS in the first place or decrease the duration of your misery.

If you really can’t stand DOMS, there are a few strategies to try. Some research has found that omega-3 fatty acid, caffeine, and taurine intake can potentially reduce symptom severity14 (disclaimer: discuss dietary supplementation with a medical provider). Light to moderate aerobic exercise such as riding a bike or jogging may help reduce DOMS when used as part of a warm up routine15. However, the best solution may be the most obvious: ease your way in. A 1- to 2-week preparatory exercise phase using lower volume and intensity reduces the soreness experienced with subsequent sessions16.

If you try all of the above and still get a case of the DOMS, do not fear. Father Time will take care of the soreness and your body will ensure that the next time you work out, the pain won’t be quite so bad. Trusting in your ability to repair and adapt will allow you to reap the numerous benefits that exercise has to offer.

Written by: Dr. Scott Newberry

You can’t go wrong getting strong…no matter your age!

Strength training, also known as progressive resistance exercise, is a safe and effective way to improve your health, regardless of age. In fact, research has continued to support that strengthening is safe and effective for older adults*.

The benefits are far greater than simply improving aesthetic appeal (though this is a favorable side effect). They include:

  1. Counteracting age-related declines in muscle strength and function
  2. Increased muscle strength and power to help maintain or improve function, reduce disability, and maintain independence
  3. Increased bone mineral density, helping to combat osteopenia and osteoporosis
  4. Reduced fall risk
  5. Reduced risk of serious injury if a fall should occur due to improved tissue and bone health
  6. Improvements in psychological health, cognitive function, and sense of well-being

All of these add up to an increase in healthy lifespan and overall quality of life!

Despite all of these benefits, it can still feel intimidating to get started on a strengthening program. Strength training induces fatigue and muscle soreness, both of which can be uncomfortable and discouraging for a novice. However, with repeated training sessions over several weeks, you will find that such discomforts will give way to boosts in energy and improvements in function. Likewise, the soreness that occurs early on will typically improve and become less severe as your body adapts.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Anything is better than nothing. Start small and gradually build the amount and intensity of exercise. Strengthening 2-3 days per week is adequate to make improvements.
  2. Muscle soreness that begins the day after you exercise and persists for 2-3 days is normal and necessary to build strength. Don’t worry, the soreness will pass!
  3. Keep it simple. Many of the best exercises are those that have withstood the test of time including squats, push-ups, lunges, biceps curls, and arm raises.
  4. Have fun! Get friends and family involved, track your progress in a journal, or follow along with a YouTube video to keep things interesting.

If you need help developing a program, our staff at Harbor Physical Therapy can help you get on your way to a stronger, more resilient body!

*One caveat to the above: if you have a medical condition, orthopedic injury, or are generally uncertain about the safety of strength training for you, be sure to consult a medical professional before beginning a program.

Written by Dr. Scott Newberry

Strain vs. Sprain- What is the Difference?

Strains and sprains are common musculoskeletal injuries that can develop from a variety of everyday activities. Although these injuries can be similar, they involve different types of soft tissue in the body.

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon that has been overstretched or torn. A tendon is a tough cord of fibrous tissue that connects muscles to bones. A strain can develop over time from repetitive use of a muscle or can develop acutely from a sudden overstretching of a muscle.

A sprain is an injury to a ligament that has been overstretched or torn. A ligament is a tough band of fibrous tissue that connects bones to other bones in your joints. The ankles and knees are common area of sprains due to abrupt pivoting and twisting motions.

Physical Therapists treat sprains and strains with exercise, manual treatment, and modalities. If you would like to learn more about your injury, contact Harbor Physical Therapy at 443-524-0442.

Written by Dr. David Reymann

COVID-19’s Got You Inside?

As we are advised to stay home to avoid the spread of the virus, that doesn’t mean that we should stop exercising! There are many exercises you can do from the comfort of your home to increase your strength and endurance. Here are a few exercises below:

  1. Standing Marches: While standing, lift your knee in the air so that it is even with your hip. Return to the floor. Perform on the other side. Repeat for 2 minutes.

  1. Heel Raises: While standing, push through your toes to lift your heels into the air. Hold for 3 seconds. Slowly return your heels to the floor. Repeat 20 times.

  1. Sit-to-stands: While seated in a stable chair, cross your arms across your body and stand up. Slowly return to a seated position. Repeat 20 times.

  1. Plank: Lay down with your stomach on the floor and place on your body weight on your forearms.  Push up on your forearms and bear weight through your feet, while maintaining a straight line between your shoulders, hips, and feet, hold this position for 1 minute.

As you become more comfortable with each exercise, you can begin challenging yourself to perform each exercise for longer or for more repetitions. If you begin exercising and find that you have pain or feel unsteady, we would love to work with you at Harbor Physical Therapy! Call us at 443-524-0442 to set up an evaluation today.

Written by: Dr. Chloe Smith

Three Exercises to Decrease Back Stiffness

Stiffness and pain in the middle and upper back is a common issue seen by physical therapists. There can be multiple causes of this including postural deficits, decreased strength, increased muscular tightness, and decreased mobility in the thoracic spine. There are many different exercises that can help to directly address these deficits. Here are a few that you can try at home.

1. Side-Lying Book Openers

Lie on your side with your knees bent. Keep your hips still while rotating your upper body. Follow your hand with your head. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times on each side.

2. Cat-Camel

While on your hands and knees, sink your back toward the floor and lift your head up. Next, tuck your head in while arching your back up. Hold for 10 seconds in each direction and repeat 10 times.

3. Child’s Pose Stretch

Sit back on your heels while reaching your hands as far out in front of you as possible. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 5 times.

 

Written by: Dr. David Reymann

Tips for Exercising in the Heat

As the COVID-19 outbreak and the summer heat, humidity, and thunderstorms continue, you may feel less motivated to get outside and exercise. Here are a few tips to get you motivated for exercising in the summer:

1. Exercise early in the day or later in the evening to beat the heat and avoid crowds.
2. Bring water with you.
3. Take breaks when you feel tired.
4. Wear supportive shoes.
5. Wear light and moisture-wicking clothing.

What if I am having pain with exercising?

Stop the exercise! The next time you work out, try that exercise again to see if it causes you pain. If it does, stop the exercise again. On the third trial, if the pain has not gone away, it is time to get that pain checked out.

Harbor Physical Therapy is here to help! You can schedule an appointment directly with us. We will analyze your movement patterns and help to address areas of weakness and tightness to get you back on your feet in no time. Happy exercising!!

Written by:
Dr. Chloe Smith and Dr. David Reymann

COVID-19- What is an In-Office Physical Therapy Session Like Now?

Harbor Physical Therapy has returned to providing in-office physical therapy sessions with new health precautions in place due to COVID-19. When you arrive, you will be asked a series of COVID-19 screening questions and your temperature will be taken by a staff member.  Our office waiting room has chairs placed >6 feet apart and we ask you come alone to your appointment to limit people in the facility. Every person in the office is required to wear a face mask at all times.

 When it is time for your appointment, your therapist will call you back to the gym and will ask you to wash your hands before the session begins. During your session, you will work with your therapist exclusively on one side of our large gym.  All pieces of equipment used during your session will be thoroughly cleaned immediately after usage.

 We understand that performing physical therapy while wearing a mask may be difficult or uncomfortable at times. If you find yourself out of breath or more tired than usual during your PT session, please request to have a break before continuing on with your exercises.  We have closed door treatment rooms where you can take a break. Your health and safety is our top priority. We appreciate your patience and your presence during this uncertain time. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any additional questions you may have.  We look forward to seeing you at Harbor Physical Therapy!

Written by: Dr. Chloe Smith

COVID-19- Nutrition Tips

Similar to when we gain the “Freshman 15”, we are now having new experiences that can potentially lead to gaining the “COVID-19” Whether sheltering in place or providing care as an essential employee, this unique situation filled with stress and anxiety lends itself to developing unhealthy behaviors. Below are some steps you can take to help maintain both your physical and mental health.

Create Structure— when staying at home, it is easy to graze throughout the day instead of eating set meals and snacks. It is important to set a mealtime schedule and stick to it. This may be a good time to take advantage of not having afterschool activities and other errands– plan a nutritious dinner and reconnect as a family around the table. Just as important as your meals, plan out your snacks as well and make sure to practice good portion control.

Stock your Pantry and Fridge Strategically— it is important to keep items on hand so that you can prepare healthy meals for yourself and your family. Stock your pantry with non- perishables such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice or ancient grains, canned beans, canned tuna packed in water, whole grain cereal and crackers, tomato sauce, popcorn kernels, and fruit cups packed in juice. Try to limit chips and cookies to just one variety to help avoid overeating empty calories. Load up your fridge and freezer with eggs, low fat milk, yogurt, cheese, frozen vegetables, frozen fish/chicken/lean ground turkey, and frozen waffles/pancakes. Keep fresh pro- duce on hand that does not spoil quickly such as apples, oranges, green bananas, baby carrots, celery and potatoes.

Allow One Treat Each Day— it’s great to have something to look forward to without over- indulging. Leave the container and take out a single portion so you are not tempted to eat more. This is also a great time to get your kids in the kitchen so they can help bake cookies, frost cup- cakes, etc. Consider baking from scratch so you can substitute some healthier ingredients.

Maintain Hydration— thirst can easily be confused with hunger, especially when we are looking to snack out of boredom. Most adults require around 2L or 68 ounces of fluids each day, and it is recommended to choose mostly calorie-free options. Remember that your morning coffee or soup for lunch contribute to your overall fluid intake. Consider saving a one or two liter bottle and refilling it with your calorie-free beverage of choice to help track your daily intake.

Written by: Julie Tasher, RD

So you Started Walking More……

In these unprecedented times, many people are turning to walking outside to relieve stress, spend some time outdoors, and maybe even to walk off a couple extra pounds they’ve gained while staying home. Walking is a great way to improve your cardiovascular health, boost your mood, and increase your endurance. It is a low-impact activity, so it is gentle on your joints. However, a sudden increase in repetitive physical activity can lead to the development of pain or injury. As you spend more time being active throughout your day, make sure you slowly build up your mileage/the time in which you are walking each day to prevent overuse injuries. If you are not used to walking for long periods of time, start with 10 minutes a day and slowly increase the amount of time you are walking until you reach your desired length (30 minutes per day is a great goal). You can even break up your walking into shorter, more frequent walks throughout the day to limit fatigue. As you walk, it is important that you wear supportive shoes to prevent the development of pain from poor alignment or poor body mechanics. If you have recently developed pain from an increase in exercise, have questions about the proper footwear for your body part, or are interested in learning more about other exercises you can do as you stay home, please contact our office to schedule a physical therapy evaluation today!

Written by; Dr. Chloe Smith