Does that New Year’s resolution or party-season pudge have you hitting the gym with renewed enthusiasm? Good for you! But your muscles took a little holiday recently, too, and the same workout that left you feeling invigorated a few weeks ago may leave you feeling sore now. “No pain, no gain” is a popular view, a veritable mantra of our times. It is also bunk. Pain is one of the ways your body tries to tell you something is wrong, something needs attention or you need to make changes. Listen.
Most sports-medicine experts agree that muscle pain after exercise (delayed onset muscle soreness) is a normal, but unnecessary response to a change in exertion. It is a sign that you have gone beyond exertion in to overexertion.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is generally believed to be the result of microscopic tearing of muscle fibers and/or the buildup of lactic acid that comes from stretching active muscles. Either way, the body’s inflammatory processes are initiated. And pain is the part of inflammation (a natural healing process) that tells you you’ve overdone it.
Regardless of where you stand on the no-pain-no-gain bunk-o- meter, surely we can all agree that it is better to work with your body than against it. And given the exceptional difficulty of identifying the exact moment in a workout that separates the doing from the overdoing, perhaps the best we can hope for is to recognize the signal the body sends roughly 12 to 48 hours after the fact.
The simplest recovery technique is to allow your body to rest. Delayed onset muscle soreness will go away in three to seven days without any special treatment. (If it doesn’t, continuing pain may indicate a more serious injury that requires consulting a physician.)
OTHER TECHNIQUES TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE THE PAIN OF OVEREXERTION:
- Avoid any strenuous activity that increases the pain.
- Before you leave the gym, do some gentle stretching and take advantage of the sauna, steam room, pool and/or cold shower. Experts disagree about the effectiveness of these ideas but, at a minimum, they feel good. (Translation: Feeling good = feeling less pain.)
- Try an ice bath or contrast water bath. The basic idea here is brief but total exposure to the anti-inflammatory effects of ice or cold water, which can be followed by moist heat to increase relaxation. Experts disagree about this approach, too, but many professional athletes follow this practice and claim it works.
- Book a massage. Research has found that gentle massage can reduce DOMS by nearly 30 percent and diminish swelling.
- Try yoga. There is some evidence that yoga may reduce DOMS, possibly by increasing blood flow in the same way that easy, low- impact aerobic exercise does. With either yoga or easy aerobics, be careful not to overdo it again.
- Break out the magnesium. An important mineral for good nutrition, magnesium also calms and relaxes. In this case, it works to relax painful muscles. So take your magnesium supplement, rub on some topical magnesium gel or oil, or just throw some Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) into your bath.
- If the previous suggestion didn’t get you into the bathtub, try a soak with essential oils. The experts are virtually lining up to tell you this alternative won’t work, but 20 minutes in a warm tub with oils of rosemary, peppermint and lavender (bubbles optional) can be 20 minutes of something close to heaven that will bring the post-tub pain meter down a few notches.
- Reach for your favorite anti-inflammatory. Experts agree that the occasional use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen is perfectly acceptable. Fair enough, but as a homeopathic practitioner, I would rather you opt for the following suggestion.
- Explore natural aids. They may not meet the FDA standards for making claims about reducing inflammation, but check them out and draw your own conclusions. Some ideas include: tart cherry juice, ginger tea, fresh pineapple, proteases (between meals) including papain and bromelain, boswellia, chamomile, curcumin, flaxseed, hawthorn, herbal licorice, meadowsweet, quercetin, willow bark and yarrow.
- Saving the best for last, Arnica, Arnica, Arnica! If you have never tried the homeopathic remedy Arnica Montana, then you are in for a special treat. Place three pellets of low-potency (12C) homeopathic Arnica under your tongue and wait 10 to 20 minutes. You can repeat the dose if or when your pain returns. Arnica is also available in a variety of topical preparations (external use only) under assort ed trade names. These may be homeopathic or herbal, and they all work.
You’ve got plenty of options for keeping those muscles relaxed and healthy. So move your body for health, for happiness and for fun. And move in to the New Year with renewed vigor!