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Yesterday was leg day. Today, you stand at the bottom of the staircase and exhale. You may be fit or generally active, but the stairs are not an option today. Should checking “inability to climb stairs” this particular day be a cause for concern? How can you tell if the pain you’re feeling is either just soreness or something more?

What causes soreness?

Sore muscles after exercising is known as delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS). When working your muscles, especially during a tough workout, you are actually causing microscopic damage. This is part of the normal growth process. Soreness is the result of nutrients and fluids, such as white blood cells, working to repair your muscles; however, it isn’t the only culprit of muscles soreness. A natural byproduct of muscle metabolism is lactic acid. After a workout, this accumulates on the muscles and causes discomfort.

What causes injury?

The direct cause of an injury during exercise varies from tweaks and strains to tears. In order to avoid this, consider your activity threshold. This is dependent on a few factors such as age, baseline strength, and participation level. Basically, if you cross the threshold, you will skip over soreness and go straight to pain. However, the threshold can progressively increase the more you exercise. It is important to be mindful of your threshold in order to avoid injury.

How can you tell if you’re just sore?

Consider the type of pain you’re feeling. Does it just take a few extra minutes to crawl out of bed, or are you physically unable to reach the ground without crying out? If your muscles feel tender to the touch, but you are still able to exercise (with a little bit of burning) then it should subside as you continue to exercise. Typically, the soreness will be symmetrical (both legs, both arms, etc.) and occurs over a large area which can be difficult to pinpoint. When you’re lying down, you may feel some tightness and aches, but these are minimal.

How can you tell if you’re injured?

If you feel sharp pain, especially during continued exercise and even when at rest, it may be time to take a break and seek medical attention. Typically, an injury is noticeable because the discomfort is now asymmetrical and you are able to identify its location in one part of the body (typically muscles or joints).

How long does soreness last?

When the discomfort onsets and how long it lasts can usually be a sign to seek further attention. Soreness is at its peak 24-48 hours after a workout and usually lasts two to three days.

How long does an injury last?

The discomfort usually happens during exercising or up to 24 hours afterwards. If it continues to linger longer than seven to 10 days, then you should consult a doctor to put you on the right path to recovery.

How to manage soreness

Being sore isn’t an excuse to quit. Work through it. Sometimes it’s good to give the sore muscles a rest and focus on other muscles while they are repairing. Continue to stretch in order to prevent falling under the injury category. Just avoid over-stretching, which can cause muscle tears and strains.

How to manage an injury

So THIS is when you should actually probably stop your workout routine for a while. Remember middle school health class? Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE). We’ve been saying all along: if necessary, go see a doctor.

After you have started to heal, it’s important to ease back into your routine, as your threshold may have decreased during rest. Depending on how long you’ve been out of commission, start at 25 percent of your usual capacity, and increase about 10 percent per week. Just be mindful of any additional pain. If you are usually a regular gym rat, don’t go into denial about how tough you are. Continuing to work an injured muscle or joint can cause permanent damage to the area.