Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS: What Causes It and Can It Be Prevented?

Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS: What Causes It and Can It Be Prevented?

(Last Updated On: April 20, 2019)

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If you’ve just started working out or worked out harder than usual, you may experience a few days of soreness after your workout. Muscle pain and stiffness that occurs after a workout is called delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. DOMS can make you feel pretty sore and uncomfortable for a few days, and you may be tempted to skip your workout when the stiffness makes it hard to get around.

On the positive side, some people are pleased when their muscles ache after a workout because it means they’ve worked hard. Even though delayed-onset muscle soreness is a sign you’ve given your muscles a challenge, it would be better to get the benefits without feeling sore for days afterward. What causes DOMS, and is there a way to prevent it?

DOMS usually makes its appearance 24 to 72 hours after a strenuous workout. Some experts blame the discomfort of DOMS on the build-up of lactic acid in muscle tissues. Lactic acid levels rise temporarily when you work out at a high-intensity but fall back to normal within 30 minutes of exercise recovery. Because the rise in lactate acid levels isn’t sustained, it’s unlikely to account for muscle soreness that comes on 24 hours or more after the completion of exercise.

There is still an ongoing debate about the exact cause and treatment of DOMS, but the more likely culprit in DOMS is trauma to muscle fibers that aren’t properly conditioned. Resistance training creates tiny tears in muscle fibers. This causes the muscles to become sore and inflamed, which leads to the classic symptoms of soreness and stiffness people experience after a workout. Any type of exercise can cause DOMS, but eccentric movements, like running downhill, negative pull-ups, negative curls, or almost any downward weightlifting exercise that cause a muscle to forcefully contract while it lengthens seems to cause the most soreness.

Fortunately, you won’t become stiff and sore every time you workout, because your body adapts to this stress, and unless you challenge it in a new way, you won’t get the same degree of soreness after a workout.

What about treatment? Various ways of preventing and treating DOMS have been proposed. Massage and ice can help temporarily ease the symptoms, and some experts have even proposed using hyperbaric oxygen to speed up muscle recovery, but research has failed to show benefits.

One way to reduce muscle soreness after exercise is to do a good warm-up beforehand. This helps to increase the temperature of the muscles before placing them under stress. Also, not doing too much too quickly allows the body to slowly adapt to working out.

Since the pain of DOMS comes from muscle inflammation, eating an anti-inflammatory diet may help to prevent it. Small studies show that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, tart cherry juice, chocolate milk and black tea extract all reduce muscle inflammation after a workout. To get the benefits, eat these foods consistently at least several days before and after a workout.

All-in-all, the best way to reduce the discomfort of DOMS is to ease slowly into a workout, especially if you’re exercising for the first time or increasing the intensity. This is particularly true with resistance training where you’re breaking down muscle fibers. Adding more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet may also be helpful. If all else fails, use ice packs to ease the inflammation and give yourself a few days of lighter activity or rest.

 

References:

Br. J. Sports med. 1988 March; 22(1): 35-38.
Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 2007 June; 292(6); R2168-73.
Running Times Magazine. “Why Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a Good Thing”

 

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