“Is this pain, or am I just sore?”
This is a question that everyone confronts at some point in their life. But what is the real difference between these sensations? Isn’t soreness just a type of pain?
In this article, we’ll explore the difference between soreness and pain to shed some light on what you can do to manage them both, and when to seek help from a medical professional.
What Are Soreness and Pain?
Both soreness and pain are part of everyday life, but they can mean very different things. Let’s take a look at what soreness and pain actually are and what causes them.
Sore muscles typically arise from either pushing your muscles beyond their limits or either intentionally or unintentionally using muscles that you don’t use often.
For example, if you engage in strenuous exercise or stretching for the first time in months or years, you will probably experience muscle soreness afterward. This is called delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), and it tends to occur a day or so after exercise and can stick around for a couple of days.
Soreness can occur after you deliberately exercise a little too hard, but it can also occur from a sudden or abrupt use of parts of your body that aren’t used to working.
For example, minor muscle strain from a slip on a wet floor can feel very similar to the soreness you might encounter from an intense workout. This is also true in situations where perhaps you have to lift an amount of weight to which you are unaccustomed.
DOMS is a natural part of your body’s recovery and rebuilding process, and sore muscles are usually a healthy and expected result of exercise. It will generally dissipate after a couple of days with sufficient rest, light stretching, and proper nutrition.
Physical therapy is not usually required for exercise-related muscular soreness unless the dull pain persists past five days, which may indicate that muscle fibers are damaged in a more serious way.
Additionally, visiting a doctor is not a bad idea if you experience muscle soreness when you have not engaged in abnormal physical activity. Sensations of persistent “soreness” may be an indicator of another problem.
Pain is a little trickier because it is perceived differently by everyone in different contexts. For example, the pain that you feel when your muscles burn while exercising would be very alarming if it happened in the middle of dinner, but it is an expected result of doing bicep curls.
The most important differentiation is in identifying the difference between “good” pain (like muscle soreness, or ‘hurts-so-good’ massage pain) versus a sharp, shooting pain that you might encounter from a serious injury.
Pain is often point-specific (acute), especially in the case of broken bones, ligament, muscle, or tendon injuries. Chronic pain is pain that persists for weeks, months, or even years regardless of cause.
These types of pain typically feel more intense and sensitive to touch or movement, and can severely disrupt your physical activity patterns, both short and long-term.
For example, soreness from exercise will occasionally make walking uncomfortable, while pain from a joint injury will often prevent you from being able to walk at all, sometimes immediately after an injury occurs.
A physical therapist might work with a patient to manage pain while learning to overcome muscle weakness surrounding the injury. This would typically not be necessary for soreness.
Soreness vs Pain: How Can You Tell the Difference?
The intensity and persistence of pain can be an indicator that there is a medical problem that needs to be addressed. Pain is your body’s signal that something is wrong, and if pain persists, or increases in intensity, it is best to talk to your doctor.
In contrast, soreness is usually described as “tender,” or a burning feeling in your muscles that could begin to recede within a few hours or a few days, depending on the extent of the strain and stress on the muscle in question.
Soreness gradually lessens in intensity, while pain usually does not.
Circumstances may differ from person to person, but if the intensity and sharpness of a sensation are causing you to move differently to accommodate it, you are likely dealing with pain.
Common Causes of Pain
Pain can happen anywhere in your body, and can arise from illness or injury.
Again, intense or persistent pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.
With an injury like a broken bone or a muscle tear, physical discomfort is immediate and usually very intense. Pain can result from virtually any body injury or trauma, large or small to differing degrees.
Pain from an injury can be debilitating immediately, causing an inability to move parts of your body, or it can result in chronic, long-term pain, as anyone suffering from a back injury will attest.
Some illnesses cause pain, including kidney stones, pancreatitis, sore throat, headaches, toothaches from infection, or an achy feeling caused by cold or flu, as well as some heart and lung issues.
While some of these types of pain may resemble muscle soreness from exercise, they will typically be longer lasting, and will only dissipate as the issue is resolved.
How and When to Treat Pain Without Medication
While medication can help alleviate pain, at least for the short term, it usually does not treat the underlying condition or cause.
In some cases, non-medication-based interventions can help to lessen or even alleviate pain without drugs.
Examples of non-medication pain treatments might include:
- Applying cold or heat to affected areas
- Physical and occupational therapy to assess and address causes through therapeutic exercise or manual care.
- Relaxation or stretching exercises to soothe muscle soreness and pain
- Mindfulness exercises to manage and cope with pain.
- Massage to decrease tension in sore or injured muscles
- Appropriate rest and recovery
A medical professional or physical therapist should be consulted to help guide you through these or other options. Treatment for serious or chronic pain should not be taken lightly, and your physical therapy team can identify the proper course of action for most injuries.
When Should You See a Doctor About Your Pain Symptoms?
The answer depends on your pain threshold and how often you experience pain, the type of illness or injury you are experiencing, and the intensity of your pain.
If you are experiencing severe sharp or unbearable pain, visiting an urgent care facility or emergency room is appropriate. If your pain is persistent but not intense, scheduling a visit with your doctor is the better choice.
Pain and soreness can range from minor to acute, depending on the cause. Pain will typically be more intense and longer lasting, while soreness will usually recede with rest.
While pain and soreness are similar, neither should be ignored. If you have pain or soreness for more than four days, or if either is so acute you are in intense discomfort, it’s best to talk to your doctor.