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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Johnson

Soreness or Pain: What's the Difference?

Starting a new exercise or a new training routine is exciting, rewarding, and more often than not, accompanied by a bit of physical discomfort. Once you make the choice to become more active, getting into the groove is usually the easy part...the difficulty lies in figuring out what the ensuing discomfort you feel might mean. If it's been a while since you've been at the height of activity, it might be hard to determine if you have a typical case of muscular soreness resulting from exercise...or if the pain is a result of chronic or acute injury.

At Everybody Healing Center, one of my goals is to help patients of all activity levels identify and overcome pain and injury. Athletes are often accustomed to soreness and dull aches and pains, but how do you know when soreness is a more serious problem that could indicate a new injury or perhaps even a long-dormant chronic injury?

Below are a few tips on helping you determine the difference between soreness and pain. Feel free to use these guidelines to help you learn what you can do on your own to ease those aches and pains, or to determine when a visit to an acupuncturist is best.

That Post-Activity Feeling

After strenuous exercise–or jumping into physical fitness after a hiatus–it is not that uncommon to experience some muscle soreness. In fact, I would say it's the norm.

After a particularly challenging workout, muscles will be tender to the touch or even burn slightly with some movement. During exercise you may feel strong and accomplished, all while your muscles are fatiguing (this is a good thing!). The fatigue you feel is a result of micro tears in the muscle that took place during the workout. Most people generally feel the most sore and tired the day after a tough workout, and the discomfort gradually goes away. A red flag indicator of injury is when the post-exercise discomfort and sharp pain seem persistent--whether you are engaged in physical activity or not. If the pain persists for a couple of weeks, or if it is immediate and severe, there is a chance that you may have damaged muscles, tissues or joints.

Both soreness and pain can be part of a physically active person's everyday life, but they can mean very different things--by definition and according to the affected individual. Let’s take a look at what soreness and pain actually are and what causes them.


As I mentioned before, muscles become sore from either pushing them beyond their limits or either intentionally or unintentionally using muscles that you don’t use often.

For instance, if you participate in a strenuous exercise or some intense stretching or yoga for the first time in months or even a few years, there is a good chance that you will experience some soreness afterward. This post-workout feeling of soreness is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Symptoms of Soreness:

  • Temporary

  • Slow onset

  • Burning feeling in muscles

  • Muscle tightness

If you have ever had a minor muscle strain from a slip on a wet floor (or perhaps more seasonally appropriate: a slip on the ice while shoveling), you know very well that it can feel very similar to the soreness you might encounter from an intense workout. This is also true in situations where you have lifted heavier weights than you were used to.

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 go away after a couple of days with sufficient rest, light stretching, and proper nutrition.


Pain can be little trickier to determine, because it is perceived differently by different people in different contexts.

The most important differentiation is in identifying the difference between “good” pain (like muscle soreness, or "oh yikes, that hurts, but in a good way" post-massage pain) versus an intense shooting pain that you might encounter from a serious injury.

Pain is usually 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. Both acute and chronic pain typically feel more intense and sensitive to touch or movement, and can severely disrupt your physical activity patterns--whether recreational or at work--both short and long-term.

Symptoms of pain:

  • Quick onset

  • Sharp feeling

  • Aching

  • Persistent

  • Does not go away after a few days

  • Continued discomfort with everyday activities

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 even immediately after an injury takes place.

Have You Thought About Acupuncture?

Acupuncture works! For patients experiencing all forms of chronic pain: arthritis, lower back pain, frozen shoulder, migraines, neck pain, and even sports-related injuries, acupuncture can be beneficial in relieving pain and discomfort. If you find that stretching, over-the-counter pain relief, icing, light exercise, and a shift in dietary choices is not making the difference you had hoped for, you should consider acupuncture. Acupuncture is non-invasive, effective, and perhaps what I love most about it: it doesn't just treat your chronic pain symptoms but it helps identify the root cause.

If you are in pain, whether chronic or exercise-induced, consider Traditional Chinese Medicine. By using a holistic approach, I can have you moving with joy and ease. Contact Everybody Healing Center today to manage your chronic pain and begin living life fully again!

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