We are all familiar with the phrase, “no pain, no gain,” when it comes to exercise. But how do we apply that rule to ourselves when deciding whether to push through an exercise session or to stop and listen to our bodies?
One of the keys to knowing when to stop or keep going lies in understanding the difference between “pain” and “general discomfort.” Some discomfort goes hand in hand with strenuous exercise as we push our bodies to increase muscle strength and en-durance. However, sharp or persistent pain is another matter.
As we exercise, one of the most common forms of discomfort we experience is the burning feeling caused by a buildup of lactic acid in our muscles. Many refer to this as “the burn” or “good pain.” This discomfort should end once you stop your workout.
In contrast, if you experience actual pain – sudden, stabbing or sharp – you need to listen to your body and stop what you are doing immediately. Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. Attempting to push through can ultimately result in a more serious injury.
You may also feel muscle soreness or achiness for 24 to 72 hours after exercise, particularly if is a new activity or an increase in intensity. Contracting and stretching the muscles can cause microtears that result in inflammation. This is referred to as DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. It is our body’s natural response to exercise and results in helping to build and strengthen our muscles over time.
If the discomfort is mild, it is important to resist the temptation to take a day off and rest. Staying on the couch may, in fact, extend your symptoms. Active recovery exercises, such as yoga, stretching, light resistance and walking, increase blood flow and help sore muscles recover faster.
If discomfort persists and begins to affect your daily activities, you should consider seeing a physician. Signs that indicate a more serious problem include:
• Pain that is constant or increasing over time
• Pain in an area that was previously injured or surgically repaired
• Lack of pain relief after rest, ice and anti-inflammatories
• Pain that interferes with sleep
• Development of weakness, tingling or numbness
• Pain associated with fever and chills.
We know exercise is important for both our physical and mental health. And we expect that it may come with some mild discomfort as our bodies respond to being tested. However, sudden, sharp pain or pain that persists should sound the alarm that you may have pushed too hard.
Dr. Matthew Levy writes about orthopedics for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center and practices in Solon, Independence and downtown Cleveland.