When Sore Muscles Are Serious
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Those of us who have ever experienced that two-days-later, I-can't-walk soreness have likely also wondered: Is this feeling normal? The good news is that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)—that achy feeling 24 to 48 hours after an intense workout—usually is an expected and OK side effect of exercise. The bad news: Sometimes, seemingly 'sore' muscles could signal something more serious. Next time you're feeling it post-sweat session, check for these six warning signs that something else is to blame for your pain.
You Can Point to Pain with a Finger
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Muscle soreness is usually a dull and all-over sort of feeling, says Scott Weiss, C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist and exercise physiologist. Injury, on the other hand, tends to be more acute. A good way to tell the difference: If you can point to the pain with one finger, you might be looking at a pulled or strained muscle, tendon, or ligament, says Weiss. If you can use your whole palm to ID the area in question, it's likely just sore muscles.
Only One Side of Your Body Hurts
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"Good muscle soreness usually affects both sides of the body," says Weiss. Whether your arms, legs, or abs are aching, with normal soreness the pain will be bilateral. Injuries, on the other hand, are usually unilateral, says Weiss. "It's very rare that people pull both hamstrings, for example."
You Overdid It
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One exception to that unilateral pain being "normal" soreness: overtraining. "A close sister to muscle soreness for endurance athletes would be when you start overdoing it," says Weiss. Triathletes and other endurance athletes might shake off a 'dead leg' sore feeling in both legs as a good training session. But if this sounds familiar, consider when your last off day was. Can't remember? You might need to slow down, stat.
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Think about how long you've been feeling the burn: Sore muscles usually last anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, says Weiss. If you're creeping up on five, six, or seven days and still feel pain that you can point to with a finger, you might be dealing with an injury, he says.
The Pain Is Worse with Use
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Ever been sore but gone on a run anyway? You've likely noticed that by mile one, your legs start to warm up and the pain subsides. If you're suffering from plain ol' muscle soreness, this will likely be the case. Wincing with every step? "With and injury, the pain can become worse with usage," says Weiss.