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  No pain, no gain

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine decided to join a kickboxing boot camp. It was a pretty intense work out, but she came out feeling great and eager to use me as her human punching bag. The next day was a completely different story. Her calves hurt so bad that she almost couldn’t walk. I did a quick assessment and there were no obvious signs of an injury other than the fact that it hurt when the muscle at the back of her leg was poked or stretched. So I waved my magic hands and told her that the pain would be gone in a few days. Presto! She was cured two days later.

What really happened?

The discomfort she was having was likely due to a natural response called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is a muscle soreness or stiffness that is often felt several hours following an intense or unfamiliar activity. You feel this pain when your muscles are contracting, touched, or stretched, and can last anywhere from three days to a week. In addition, it also leads to a temporary decrease in muscle strength and range of motion.

DOMS may sound like a new term, but it has been well studied for years. Despite this, the exact cause is still unknown. Some theories suggest that is caused by a breakdown of muscle fibres, structural protein damage, or swelling and inflammation. These theories are yet to be proven by research.

Is there really a magic touch?

Studies have examined the use of many things from anti-inflammatory medications, massage, stretching, heat, and ice to treat DOMS. However, just as there is no consensus on what the real cause is, there is no significant evidence to support the benefits of any specific treatment for DOMS.

Really, the only thing you can do is let your body heal over the next few days, and you should be feeling better in no time.

Prevention is Key

Do not let DOMS discourage you from starting a new exercise program or from continuing an activity just because you felt sore. People of all activity levels can have muscle soreness after a workout, so it shouldn’t stop you from trying to keep fit.

You should progress new exercises or activities gradually so that your muscles have time to adapt. Often people are so eager to see immediate results in the mirror that they will tend to overtrain. The reality is that small changes are being made in the neuromuscular system long before you see visible changes, so give it some time.

It is important to note the difference between muscle soreness caused by exercise, from injury or overdoing something. If the soreness is persistent and starts to affect your activities of daily living, then you should follow up with your physiotherapist or a qualified health care professional.

Week 3 of Kickboxing Boot Camp

By the third week of her kickboxing boot camp, the muscles in her legs were doing just fine. She had much more power in her kicks and she no longer had to walk around with a limp due to the pain. Unfortunately for her, she learned how to do an uppercut that day and the next morning she had a hard time keeping her arm up to brush her teeth. At least that meant I was free from having to be the punching bag for the next 24 - 48 hours.

Disclaimer: The above information is intended for general information only and is not meant to replace the individual assessment or advice provided by your physiotherapist.

Adrian Salonga is a graduate of the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor’s degree of Medical Rehabilitation in Physical Therapy. E-mail him at


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