Soreness vs. Pain


By Amy Elliott, MSPT

workout-sorenessThe New Year has found many of us flocking to the gym, pursuing resolutions to improve our health and well-being.  For those of us who have been MIA from the workout scene for a while, it may very well have also found us nursing various aches and pains as a result of our recent efforts.   Differentiating between acceptable levels of soreness and pain as a result of an injury can be very difficult, especially if you’re new to the exercise game or it’s been a while since you’ve played.

As we knock the rust off our joints and dust off our muscles, it’s normal to experience sensations that are unfamiliar and altogether not comfortable.  Soreness itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a byproduct of the strengthening process.  Pain, on the other hand, is not a necessary evil to be endured in order to achieve our fitness goals, and can in fact signal a need to reduce or refrain from an activity.  The line between those two can be very blurry, and understanding the difference can take time and experience, but the following are a few guidelines may help.  When in doubt, consult a health care professional.



  • Less intense, often described as “aching”
  • Typically occurs after exercising (or towards the end of a work out session)
  • Shorter in duration, typically lasting only a few days
  • Typically felt when you are moving/using your muscles and is less pronounced at rest
  • Soreness is not always limited to the muscles and may also include mild swelling of the affected limb, stiffness in the joints with mild loss of motion, tenderness to touch and a mild reduction in strength of the affected muscles



  • More intense, often described as “sharp”
  • Will often occur during an exercise (especially if the exercise is too intense or form has been compromised)
  • Persists! Lingering for one or two weeks or longer
  • Often felt even at rest
  • Can also be accompanied by localized swelling and tenderness to touch. There may also be subsequent muscle “guarding,” resulting in stiffness and limited range of motion.

Preventing Pain & Soreness

exercise warmupsA proper warm up/cool down, adequate hydration (see below) and nutrition, and careful exercise progression can all help to abate soreness and prevent injury.  Icing, especially if you suspect you’ve overdone it, can also help.  However, in the case of persistent pain that does not dissipate within a week or two, it’s best to seek medical attention, either from your physician or via a free consultation with ARC.  Early intervention can significantly reduce the time it takes to recover from an injury.  Physical therapy can help you to identify the mechanics or underlying muscular imbalances that led to the injury in order to aid in your recovery and help to prevent similar injuries in the future.



Still not sure if you can tell whether what you’re feeling is pain or just soreness? Call us for a free consultation! (630) 832-6919



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