Whether it was the touch football game your pals threw together, an extra-long run or all that yard work, there are occasions when your muscles and joints have had enough. Although you know the condition is temporary, it's still uncomfortable. Here are some tips to relieve muscle and joint pain for those times when you've overdone it.
The Why of Pain
Medical professionals once thought that muscle pain and stiffness after a work-out was the result of lactic acid build up. Lactic acid is one of the byproducts of exercise. However, the current thinking is that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is actually the result of microscopic tears in the muscles. The tears result in very tiny amounts of bleeding and trigger the body's recovery system, which produces heat and inflammation. This normal process is what causes your pain. In the long run it actually makes the muscles stronger and increases your stamina.
Doctors have an acronym for one group of strategies to help reduce muscle and joint pain. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. The rest part is pretty obvious – your over-exercised muscles and joints need a break. Ice applied to sore muscles and joints helps relieve paining and swelling and can reduce inflammation. Make sure you have a towel or similar padding between the ice or cold pack and the skin itself. Compression is for the joints themselves; an elastic bandage provides support. Elevation of the extremities helps decrease swelling.
While cold is often most effective in the first 24 hours, heat works better for many people once they're past that first day. You have a number of options. A heating pad can be applied to almost any area of the body and has the advantage that you can adjust the temperature. Hot packs also work well—a slow cooker full of warm water and turned on low keeps wet towels at just the right temperature in between applications. A jacuzzi or spa gives you the benefit of whole-body immersion, and even a good hot shower can help. Just make sure that you’re using the proper spa chemicals while using any type of hot tub.
Along the lines of a “hair of the dog that bit you” treatment, exercise is surprisingly effective at helping relieve muscle aches. Part of the reason you're sore in the first place is that exercise causes tiny tears in the muscle. As the body repairs these tears, it actually makes the muscle stronger, but in the meantime, you must cope with pain and inflammation. Gentle stretching exercises and walking help promote circulation, which increases oxygen flow and removes waste products that are contributing to your discomfort.
A number of over-the-counter medications are available for muscle soreness and joint pain. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naprosyn and aspirin are all in the classification of medication known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. These medicines help reduce the inflammation that is causing much of your discomfort. They are roughly equivalent in terms of effectiveness, but every person is different and you may find one works better than others for you. Some people find acetaminophen is easier on the stomach. Another option is topical medications. These creams and ointments contain a variety of substances that can help reduce muscle and joint pain.
DOMS typically doesn't last long. After a day or two, you should be back to your usual self. However, if the pain continues or gets worse, or if you have swelling that doesn't go away within 48 hours, you should see a doctor to make sure you don't have something more serious going on.
Hannah Whittenly is a freelance writer and mother of two from Sacramento, CA. She enjoys kayaking and reading books by the lake. For your spa chemical needs, Hannah recommends Sunplay.