We know that recovery is important helping to soothe sore muscles, improve performance and reduce pain/stiffness. How do you know if you are just sore or if you have sustained an injury, sometimes it can be hard to work out the difference. Especially if you are new to exercising or have started a new activity and are unsure what typical muscle soreness should feel like. So how do you tell the difference? Are you injured or just sore?
Muscle soreness is something that can come on during, immediately post exercise or be delayed and come on 24 – 48 hours after exercise. This soreness is usually global, may affect more than one muscle and whilst you may feel like it’s difficult to walk or use the affected muscles, strength and movement is purely affected by pain.
Muscle soreness is usually worst after completing eccentric exercises, for example, running downhill or a strength based workout that biases eccentric movements. Eccentric contraction of a muscle occurs when the muscle is under tension whilst it gets longer. For example, eccentric contraction of the bicep happens when you lower the dumbbell down in a bicep curl. You can bias eccentric phase of an exercise by slowing down that component and speeding up the concentric phase, so you would do a bicep curl fast on the way up and slow on the way down. However, if you complete an activity that you aren't used to, it won't matter if you biased the eccentric phase, you will still be sore.
It's important to know that if you have muscle soreness it is okay to move your body and complete recovery techniques such as foam rolling, massage, contrast therapy etc. All of these things will improve your soreness and it will go away on its own.
A muscle strain is an injury to the muscle fibers caused when tension applied is too much for the muscle to handle, causing a tear. The symptoms will depend on the severity of the tear, however, a strain will usually cause immediate pain when doing a specific activity. For example, you feel a sharp twang/pain in your hamstring whilst doing a deadlift that makes you drop the weight. It is normally an event that you remember happening if someone asks you. In addition to local pain, there is usually reduced strength and range of motion, an overall loss of function in the muscle.
There are three grades of muscle strain Grade 1 – 3 which are categorised based on the size of tear, level of pain and loss of function. Depending on the severity will determine the time needed to recover.
It’s important to be able to know the difference between an injury and just being sore, because it completely changes the management. If you have a strain, you want to rest, ice the area, use compression and elevate to reduce swelling (RICE). The length of time you need to RICE and avoid activity will depend on the severity of the tear ranging from days to weeks. You should avoid exercising the area and massage or stretching will make it worse not better like soreness. It is okay to massage surrounding areas with a roller or trigger ball but not directly over the tear. It is also important not to stretch the muscle, because a tear is caused by excessive stretch on a muscle, so stretching a tear is not going to help.
So in summary, you can tell if you have a muscle tear if you remember a specific event that has happened, there is a specific spot in the muscle that is sore, you have reduced strength and range of motion and there may be swelling/bruising present if it is severe.
If you are concerned, reach out to a local physiotherapist in your area to assess and assist you with rehabilitation to prevent it from happening again.