Are you feeling some aches and pains after your last match at the Madison Park tennis court? Are your ankles still sore from your run through the arboretum last week? Is that good or bad pain?
Pain is often the main topic of conversation with our rehab and training clients. What does this pain mean? Pain is defined by Merriam-Webster as “usually localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (such as a disease or injury)”. It is a message from your body that may be saying “great workout!” or “serious problem!” For general health and exercise performance you need to understand the pain message.
What does pain mean?
Exercise related “good” pain is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is the soreness that can follow exercise from micro-trauma to muscles and tendons. We often say it “hurts so good” the day after a quality workout. This sensation is usually spread out over a large area, like the front of the legs after hard bike ride down Lake Washington Boulevard. DOMS usually lasts for 1-2 days leaving the muscles tender to the touch with a sense of stiffness.
This “good” pain can be caused by progressing an exercise with more resistance or adding time to an endurance activity. Trying a new exercise for the first time can be a cause as well. The simplest way to care for DOMS is with a few days of light activity, or complete rest, of the involved muscles. Restorative and gentle yoga, like the classes offered at Denali Fitness and Live Love Flow, are great ways to slowly and comfortably move sore muscles and tendons and speed recovery. For sore calves and ankles, compression socks may help relieve mild exercise induced soreness. Having a consistent hydration and nutrition routine will help flush out the byproducts of muscle damage and speed recovery.
If your DOMS do not subside after several days of following the steps noted above, you may be dealing with some “bad” pain. This is your body telling you that it is having a hard time repairing the exercise induced tissue damage. This pain is often sharp and can be in a smaller area, often near a joint. It may indicate tendonitis or a pulled muscle. When damage is more significant it can take weeks, or even months, for the tissue to tolerate stress again.
Caring for “bad” pain
Intense and sharp discomfort that returns quickly upon return to exercise may indicate a bigger problem. Pain that increases in intensity or radiates down the arm or leg should be considered “bad”. Causes of this pain include lifting weights that are too heavy or exercising with poor form. Not warming-up the muscles before exercise or dramatically increasing endurance based activity can cause tissue damage. A good rule of thumb is to progress the time of endurance activities no more than ten percent per week at most. Increasing running or cycling time more than that can damage muscles and tendons.
Feeling your body express “bad” pain should lead you to a consultation with a physical therapist or occupational therapist. Physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts and can diagnose the cause and severity of damage to the muscles and tendons. They can also refer you to a physician if symptoms indicate further work-up and imaging. Ignoring pains that last more than several days, or pushing through the pain with continued exercise, can lead to serious tissue damage and chronic pain. The fastest way to recover from this “bad” pain is to get professional advice and guidance on how to progress your activity so you can get back in the game.
In the end, there is no “good” or “bad” pain. Listen to your body and realize it’s a conversation, not an argument. Your sensations are your body’s way of communicating your current muscle health. When you are not sure what your body is telling you, ask an expert. Waiting too long to get help only makes recovery that much longer.
Written by Aaron Shaw, founder of MoveMend
(and former bike racer who had a long term relationship with “good” pain)