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Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: What is it?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: What is it? 

Now that summer is in full swing, many people find themselves more active and perhaps experimenting with a new sport or other physical activity.  Sometimes short-term muscle soreness can be part of that experience. There is a phenomenon referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMA) that can be associated with performing a new physical task, or with higher intensity ‘usual’ exercise.  The muscle soreness can vary in intensity from mild to severe; the symptoms usually begin within 24 hours of the activity and peak between 24-48 hours. Symptoms can last for 3-4 days.

In addition to muscle pain, muscle performance can be compromised along with joint range of motion. All of this can negatively impact athletic performance on a temporary basis.

The type of muscle activity most commonly associated with DOMA is eccentric muscle function. This refers to movement patterns where the muscle is activated, but instead of the muscle shortening, it is actually lengthening. A good example of an eccentric muscle action is the lowering phase of a biceps curl. When performing a biceps curl against gravity, during the “up” phase the muscle is shortening, but during the “down” or lowering phase, the muscle is still active (controlling gravitational forces) but is lengthening. Many exercises and most sports require eccentric muscle activity – some more than others.

Although there are conflicting theories as to what causes DOMA, it is useful to view it as an inflammatory reaction secondary to mechanical stress on the muscle. Therefore treatment targeted at controlling inflammation, like cold therapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID’s), can be helpful in managing symptoms. Other treatments that have been found to be helpful include massage, stretching and general exercise - exercise that recruits muscle groups not affected by DOMA.

The good news is that this is a short-term, self-resolving problem with no significant residual pain or dysfunction. And, importantly, your body will adapt to the demands of eccentric muscle activity required by the exercises and sports that are otherwise healthy for your body!

Marcia Miller Spoto PT, DC, OCS

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