What Am I feeling? A Blog On How To Differentiate Pain And Soreness

Have you ever experienced that moment when you discover new muscles you didn’t know you have? You wake up one morning with muscle ache after trying a new exercise at the gym or trying a new sport and you think that it’s just soreness. You go back to the gym and push yourself harder thinking that it will pass, but it doesn’t. What if that discomfort wasn’t soreness?

Muscle soreness is a normal outcome of training. However, pain is an abnormal response of your body and is unhealthy if not addressed properly. You might be experiencing pain to let you know of an injury. When feeling discomfort, it is important to differentiate exercise-related soreness and pain.


What is muscle soreness?

Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness (DOMS) is a healthy normal result of physical activity. It is described as a muscular discomfort that appears 24 to 72 hours after exercise. It makes your muscles feel tight and achy. Initial movement of the sore muscle may be uncomfortable but gently stretching and moving it will help relieve the soreness.

DOMS happens when you expose your muscles to a greater stress than usual. The increase of stress on the muscle results in small microscopic tears in the fibers that the brain perceives as soreness. This safe damage is necessary when you want to grow muscles. In response to the fiber damage, inflammatory molecules called cytokines are deployed to activate the immune system repairing the injury. The repetitive cycle of damage and repair will eventually lead to a bigger and stronger muscle as it adapts to a progressively greater stress.

This is why experiencing DOMS is perfectly normal and healthy. It should not stop you from exercising. You might want to give the muscle a little rest to give it time to recover while you do other exercises to strengthen other muscles. Putting your muscles through an excessive stress could lead to harmful damage to the fibers and lead to pain.



Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage. Pain is a complex and highly sophisticated protective mechanism. We will address this subject further in another blog post.

In general, pain may indicate the presence of an injury when it occurs for the first time. It will feel like a sharp pain in your muscles or joint. There can also be a throbbing sensation. Pushing through the pain would result in substantial harm to your body. The best way is to give it some rest and take pain relievers. This pain can remain present when exercising or at rest even after a period or rest. If the pain is severe you should consult a health professional to get the best treatment possible.


Differentiation of soreness vs pain


The thin line between soreness and pain

Since soreness is a perception of infinitesimal tears in our muscle fibers, these tears could grow and get to a level where they would be harmful. They would then be perceived as pain. What separates the two is your activity threshold. Each individual has a unique activity threshold dependent upon many factors like age and actual strength. Exercising at an intensity lower than your activity threshold will result in muscular soreness. Beyond your threshold will result in pain as seen in the chart below.

Our muscles are used to the low level of stress our daily activities require. That is why our daily activities aren’t considered exercise since the intensity involved is far from our threshold. To improve physical performance, you need to apply an appropriate level of stress. The intensity should be close to your threshold for gains to occur.

One’s threshold can fluctuate as seen in the chart below. One benefit of exercise, when the intensity is appropriate, is the progressive increase of your threshold. At first, when you start training, you might not be able to hold a perfect plank position for 30 sec. However, after a couple of weeks of training, your threshold could increase to a minute or even more. There could also be a decrease of threshold if someone stops working out for two weeks and more, if they are sick or too tired.

Individuals that aren’t pushing themselves enough during their training might have slower gains since they stay too much in their safe zone. They might never feel greatly sore. In contrast, people that overshoot their abilities and train too hard might injure themselves. This is why it is important to be realistic and mindful of our body and actions. It is critical to be able to differentiate discomfort between reasonable muscle soreness and pain and to stay aware of your sensations. It is the key to staying injury free while still maximizing your gains.


When and why should I consult a physiotherapist?

Obviously, if you are in pain and it hinders your training or daily activities, you should refer to a health professional to receive advices and an appropriate treatment. As a physiotherapist, I can help you with your recovery. Firstly, I can help you with pain management. By assessing your condition, I can address all factors that lead to your injury and prevent further episodes of pain. I will build you an appropriate rehabilitation exercise program to help you reintegrate smoothly your initial training. Lastly, I will make sure that you execute the exercises properly.

Consulting a physiotherapist before starting a new training program can also be really helpful to lower your risk of injuries. Since awareness and knowledge is key to stay injury free, I will tell you which muscle group you should focus on to reach your goals. I will show you proper biomechanics and movement pattern. I will adapt exercises to your level of strength and make sure to give you an appropriate progression of difficulty. I will make sure that your body is healthy and ready to train heavily.

Remember, muscle soreness is normal and healthy. You should push through it. However, you shouldn’t tolerate to be in pain. If you are in pain, come and see me! Take an appointment now!

Author : Thalie Forest, M.Sc., B.Sc., Physiotherapist at Revline Fitness