There’s soreness, and then there’s pain. It’s important to not confuse the two, says physical therapist Chris Dickerson, owner of Puget Sound Physical Therapy in Lacey.
To active people in general and athletes at all levels, the inability to recognize the differences between muscle soreness and pain can mean pushing your body – your muscles and joints – to the point of injury. It’s the difference, Dickerson says, between healthy progress and unnecessary, long-term risk.
“Whether you’re a true athlete, are training for your first 5K fun run, enjoy riding your bike to work, or simply like working the soil in your garden, adopting the theory of ‘no pain, no gain’ isn’t always the wisest choice,” Dickerson said. “It’s one thing if you get a little sore — this happens — but if you’re dealing with pain, you need to find out what’s causing the discomfort. Pushing through the pain could only cause long-term damage to your body.”
So how can you tell soreness from pain? The answer’s simple, says Dickerson: listen to your body.
Here are some of the signs that you’re experiencing pain – not simply soreness — and should shut it down and seek the advice of a physician or physical therapist, according to both Dickerson and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA):
Pain is Sharp: Sharp, intense pain that you experience when exercising and at rest can be classified as pain. In contrast, sore muscles tend to feel tight and achy when at rest. During exercise, sore muscles will feel “burning” and fatigued.
“The burning feeling should be felt in the muscles,” Dickerson said. “But, if the part of the body where you feel discomfort is swollen or warmer to the touch, that’s a sign of inflammation, which is beyond simple soreness.”
Pain in the Joints: Soreness is a muscular thing. Though muscle discomfort can also cross the line into pain, discomfort in the joints is less ambiguous.
“If you feel in a particular joint or you’re struggling with activities that were previously easy, like getting up from a chair or walking upstairs, it’s time to seek professional advice,” Dickerson said.
Warm-Up Discomfort: If the discomfort you feel doesn’t go away after you’ve warmed up for your workout or event, you’ve potentially crossed the line into pain.
“When you’re running, let’s say, and the second mile hurts the same as when you walked out the door that morning, you’re dealing with pain, not soreness,” Dickerson said. “General soreness – even a stiff joint – should improve through use.”
R.I.C.E. Fails: If soreness persists and seems to linger, apply R.I.C.E., a popular acronym that takes you through the steps of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Then re-evaluate the way you feel. If the hurt doesn’t improve or subside, you may be dealing with pain. Time to seek the advice of an expert, such as a physical therapist.
“The sooner you see a medical expert, such as a physical therapist, the less chance the potential injury will worsen,” Dickerson said. “If you’re truly in pain, getting evaluated and treated immediately can improve and possibly hasten your recover, depending on the injury.”