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What is DOMS?

What is DOMS? Woman stretching on a bridge
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you're new to working out, or you've been hitting the gym for years, you've probably heard people talking about DOMS in relation to post-workout muscle pain. But what is DOMS and how do you avoid, or manage, it? 

DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, as Steph Ifould, a Personal Trainer with Kirklees Active Leisure (opens in new tab), told Live Science, "DOMS is a term used to describe the muscular aches, stiffness or soreness experienced between 24 and 72 hours after some particularly intense exercise or a new type of exercise that the body is unaccustomed to."

Let's face it, exercising can be painful in the moment, but that pain can feel even worse a day or two after the workout - especially if you've had a good session on a rowing machine or treadmill. We've all had the experience of struggling to walk up the stairs or sit down after a particularly tough gym session. Luckily, this kind of pain is perfectly normal and it usually goes away by itself.

This post-workout pain can certainly be annoying. As you hobble around in the days after your workout, you may even find yourself wondering, is there anything I can do to stop it? Here, Live Science delves into why DOMS happens and what you can do to ease the pain.

What is DOMS and when does it happen?

As Ifould explained above, DOMS usually occurs after a new type of workout. For instance, if you try a different type of exercise that activates muscles that are unaccustomed to working, or you increase the intensity of your workout, you'll probably feel it the next day. 

So, why the pain? While DOMS may feel like a strain or an injury, it's actually a normal response to a tough workout. Ifould said, "The muscular pain experienced is a sign that muscle fibers have been overloaded to the extent that tiny tears in these fibers have occurred and the surrounding tissues will feel sore, tight, possibly slightly inflamed and you may not be able to go through your full range of motion in a muscle of joint." But don't worry! Those little tears can be a good thing. In fact, it means that your muscles are physically changing, rebuilding, and becoming stronger.

Lucy Arnold, qualified personal trainer and Managing Director of Lucy Locket Loves (opens in new tab), added that these "microtears" in the muscles are sometimes thought to be built-up lactic acid. In fact, the pain can sometimes feel similar. However, the lactic acid build up is what occurs during a workout. Luckily, DOMS won't be a problem after every workout. "Over time, the muscles are able to take more during exercise and recover quicker, resulting in little to no DOMS," Arnold told Live Science.

What is DOMS? Image shows person holding leg muscle

(Image credit: Getty)

What does DOMS feel like?

DOMS is that stiff, tight feeling you get after an intense workout. Usually, the pain occurs in the specific muscles that you've been working on. According to Ifould, the pain peaks at around 48 hours post-workout.

DOMS can feel slightly different for different people and can present in different areas of the body. The pain can feel like anything from a dull ache to a strong burning sensation. In most cases, the pain and tightness will increase when you attempt to activate or stretch the muscle. It will also reduce the range of motion in your fatigued muscles. That's why it can feel hard to walk up or down stairs after a tough glute or hamstring workout, or hard to sit up in bed after an ab workout. 

What is DOMS? Image shows man doing yoga pose

(Image credit: Getty)

How to treat muscle soreness

As Arnold and Ifould told Live Science, there isn't actually a proven way to cure DOMS. However, there are various methods you can use to ease the pain.

Both trainers suggest that drinking water to stay hydrated can help to ease inflammation and bring oxygen to the torn muscles to speed up the repair process. While many people find that hydration does help, the studies are still inconclusive. One study in the Journal of Athletic Training (opens in new tab) found that dehydrated people suffered the same levels of DOMS as hydrated people. However, a 2005 study in the same journal showed that becoming dehydrated during a workout could worsen DOMS pain. 

Massaging the sore area or using a foam roller can also be very effective. In fact, as a 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Physiology (opens in new tab) found, this tends to be the most effective way to reduce DOMS. If you find yourself constantly suffering with DOMS, investing in a good massage gun could be a great way to relieve your pain.

If you're really struggling with your post-workout pain, you can also try taking painkillers. According to one study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning (opens in new tab), painkillers do have the potential to ease pain. However, it’s incredibly important to make sure you stick to the recommended dosage and consult your doctor before changing your medication.

Heat and cold therapy can also help with your DOMS pain. A 2017 study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) found that applying "low temperature heat wraps" to the worked muscles immediately after a workout was an effective way to prevent DOMS and that, "unlike cold, it increases flexibility of tissue and tissue blood flow". The study also found that applying heat 24 hours after the workout was less effective, but also helped to reduce muscle pain.

Perhaps the most important tip to remember is to rest when you need it. If you've exhausted and strained your muscles, take a day off your workout regime to give your muscles a chance to repair and recover.

Working out can be tough, especially when you're trying to push yourself extra hard. And a tough workout comes with some consequences. If you find yourself feeling stiff and sore in the days after your workout, you probably have a case of DOMS. 

Luckily, there are a few ways you can reduce the pain and get back to your normal self in no time. Keep hydrated, take the rest you need, use hot and cold packs, and maybe even treat yourself to a massage. And remember, the more you work out, the less you'll experience DOMS. 

Meg Walters
Meg Walters

Meg Walters is a freelance journalist and features writer. Raised in Canada and based in South East London, Meg covers culture, entertainment, lifestyle, and health. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, i-D, Refinery29, Stylist, GQ, Shondaland, Healthline, HelloGiggles and other publications.
When she's not writing, Meg is probably daydreaming about traveling the world, re-watching an old rom-com with a glass of wine, or wasting time on Twitter, where you can follow her @wordsbymeg.