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DOMS vs. aches and pains

12 Apr 2023 • 5 min read

DOMS stands for delayed onset muscle soreness. This is when your muscles feel achy or stiff for a few days after you’ve exercised.1 But is it different to general aches and pains? And how can you tell the difference between all three? We explore exactly that...

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What’s the difference between an ache and a pain?

Aches and pains are often used interchangeably, but is there a difference between the two? Well, in terms of their literary definitions, there are some slight variations. The Medical Dictionary defines pain as an “unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons. The discomfort signals actual or potential injury to the body”.2

Whereas they describe an ache as, “continuous pain as opposed to sharp pangs or twinges” and that “an ache can be either dull and constant” like with some types of backache, or “throbbing”, like with some types of headache and toothache.3

Handpicked content: The Difference Between Aches And Pains: When To Worry

What causes DOMS, aches and pains?

The cause of DOMS is complex, but it is believed that certain types of physical activity can trigger it. Specifically eccentric exercise, which is when the muscles and tendons in your body lengthen.4 It’s also thought that this type of soreness is a result of the microscopic damage of your muscle fibres (aka, tiny tears in your muscles) after exercise.5

You might have heard that lactic acid buildup causes DOMS, but this is not the case. Instead, DOMS appears to be a side effect of the repair process that takes place after exercise-induced muscle damage.5

The cause of general aches and pains can vary, and can be triggered by things like stress, sports injuries or viruses like the flu.6,7 But it is believed that regardless of the type of pain, inflammation or the inflammatory response seem to be involved.8

Due to the different causes of DOMS, aches and pains, it may be possible to experience all three at the same time.

What’s the difference between them?

The key difference between DOMS and aches and pains is what causes them, the area they affect and the duration. As we mentioned earlier, DOMS is caused by certain types of exercise, only affects the muscles and is always temporary.9

However, the causes of general aches and pains are much more varied. Unlike DOMS, aches and pains include joint pain and stiffness, which can be caused by a range of different conditions and injuries. If you’re concerned about your symptoms and would like further advice, visit your GP.

How can you tell which you’re experiencing?

If you’ve started feeling sore, stiff or achy 12-24 hours after exercise, you’re probably experiencing DOMS.5 And if it goes away within two to five days, that’s another sign that it’s DOMS. If you haven’t exercised recently and you’re feeling achy or stiff, then it’s likely that you’re experiencing aches and pains caused by something else. Again, it might be worth seeking help from a medical professional in this instance to help find the cause.

What can you do to prevent DOMS?

If you want to try and keep DOMS at bay in the future, there are a range of different techniques that you could try. These include things like:

  • having some caffeine – great news for coffee lovers, some studies have shown that consistently having caffeine in the days after exercising may reduce DOMS.10 
  • staying hydrated – a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that being dehydrated during workouts can exacerbate the symptoms of DOMS, although this was done in a very hot and humid environment and used only male participants.11 Just remember to stay hydrated and take breaks to keep yourself cool. 
  • massaging your muscles – some studies have shown that massage and the use of foam rollers may be effective at keeping DOMS at bay and promoting muscle recovery.12,13,14 
  • use a gradual training plan – exercise that you’re not used to can cause you to experience DOMS, so a gradual training plan with a good warm up and cool down may help.
  • prioritise sleep – simple but so effective, making sure you’re getting good quality sleep may also help to support the prevention of DOMS.

How can you manage the symptoms of DOMS?

With DOMS, your symptoms should subside in two to five days without the need for medical attention. But there are some things you can do to help manage the soreness, including:1

  • using ice packs
  • massaging the sore areas
  • doing some light stretches
  • taking painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication if needed

If you think massage is the best route for you, you can do this with your hands or a massage gun for added ease.

If you’re experiencing DOMS after every training session, then you should consider reviewing your training plan to include some lower intensity days.

How can you manage aches and pains?

It goes without saying that if you’re worried about your aches and pains, or you’ve had them for a long period of time, you should speak to a medical professional. The NHS lists the following self-help steps to bring you some relief:15 

  • gentle exercise – simple movement like walking, swimming, or dancing might help to ease some of your pain, as it directly blocks pain signals to the brain.
  • breathe right – when you’re experiencing intense pain it’s easy to start taking short, rapid breaths which can cause dizziness and anxiety. Instead, try to breathe slowly and deeply to help you feel more in control and keep your muscles relaxed.
  • read up on it – another way to help you feel more in control is to use the Pain Toolkit or the British Pain Society’s information on managing pain.
  • try counselling – some people find it helpful to speak to a counsellor, psychologist, or hypnotherapist about dealing with pain.
  • distract yourself – sometimes focusing on something other than your pain can help, like getting stuck into a hobby or enjoyable activity.
  • prioritise sleep – it can be hard to sleep at night when you’re in pain, and sleep deprivation can make you feel worse. So, try to be consistent with your sleep routine and keep any daytime naps to a minimum.
  • socialise – making time for your friends and family is great for your health and it may help you feel better.
  • try some relaxation techniques – consistently practising relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and meditation may help to reduce persistent pain.

The final say

Feeling a little more in the know about DOMS and how it can affect you? We hope so. The key takeaway here is that DOMS only lasts a few days and only affects your muscles, rather than causing joint pain.

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