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Muscle Soreness or Sports Injury? How to Tell the Difference

Every athlete and every person who engages in exercise experiences muscle soreness. Muscle soreness is a good sign that you have “felt the burn” and that your muscles are growing stronger as a result of the work you have done. Your muscles and the joints you focused on may feel achy, tender, and weaker than usual in the hours, and sometimes days, after a truly intense workout. This is all perfectly normal and healthy, provided you fuel up on water and protein, and remember to stretch.

But how do you tell the difference between healthy muscles that ache and a real soft-tissue sports injury? Sports injuries occur when the burn you feel pushes your body too far and the soft tissue doesn’t just burn; it tears. When you don’t notice a moment-of-injury and soreness can leave your muscles tender and weak, how do you know when it’s time to ice and rest versus soaking in a bath and getting back on the grind tomorrow?

Today, we’re here to help you find out.

Serious Muscle Soreness Can Feel Similar to a Sprain or Strain

Part of the problem is that muscle soreness can feel very similar to a minor sprain or strain. In part, because they are physically similar. When you have pushed your muscles and/or flexibility to the limit, you are doing intentional -if very mild- damage to the tissue so it will rebuild stronger. The way muscles do this (and the reason they feel sore) is because they are filing with blood, which makes you feel tender yet is actually the muscle’s healing process. But a good workout strains your muscles in such a way that the minor damage is even and diffuse so that the tissue grows back stronger, denser, and more flexible.

However, you can absolutely push a hard workout too far. If your form is off, that pushing might put too much stress on a single muscle, ligament, or joint which can cause direct tearing instead of carefully spread muscle-building stress. Your ankle can twist on a run, or you can push so hard past your limits that the muscle or connective tissue tears as a result.

When this happens, you need to do more than take a single recovery day. You need medical attention and direct care of the injury.

How to Tell the Difference Between Soreness and Injury

The best way to know whether you’re experiencing extreme muscle soreness from a targeted workout or a real injury that needs treatment is to compare the difference in how each is supposed to feel and respond to activity.

How It Feels

Soreness is Achy, Stiff, and Spread Out

Sore muscles are supposed to feel achy, hot, and like you are still ‘feeling the burn’ when you don’t let them rest. But the discomfort is spread out and it can feel pretty good if you enjoy the sensation of serious exercise. You may feel stiff as the muscles fill with blood to recover, and it’s important to stretch out.

Injury is Sharp and Specific

An injury, on the other hand, features sharp and specific pain. When you put weight on it, when you poke it, an injury will exhibit very locally specific pain, often so specific you could point to the exact spot under the skin where it hurts. If you try to use the muscle or walk on it, the pain becomes intense. Not just more ‘feel the burn’ sensation.


Sore Muscles are Tender but Not Painful

Sore muscles are a bit tender. They feel tingly and extra achy when massaged, but massage feels good and is good for them. Sore muscles may borderline on painful and your body may tell you there is some pain, but you feel good stretching out and doing light exercise in the next few days.

Injury is Tender to the Point of Pain on Contact

An injury is extremely tender, as your body’s way of saying you should be very careful. An injury may be painful to touch or exhibit a sharp pain when prodded or massaged. If you find your hand jumping away from a painful place after touching it, this is more likely to be a highly tender injury.

Inflammation and Swelling

Sore Muscles Feel Pulverized and Swell Very Slightly

Sore muscles do swell up with blood as your body builds newer dense muscle tissue. This is often what creates the sensation of tenderness. However, sore muscles only look a little larger than usual and the swelling is rarely deeper than the depth of your fingerpad.

Injury Swelling Balloons Around the Specific Damage to Protect It

An injury, on the other hand, will often swell up like a balloon if accidentally un-compressed or un-iced because you did not realize you were injured. If you wake up and your ankle has swollen to two or three times its normal size, for example, this is a real injury and not the normal blood-puffiness of sore muscles. Your body swells around an injury to create padding, protection, and tenderness to discourage further damage.


Sore Muscles are Slightly Weaker or Shaky While Recovering

After a great workout, you may notice that your muscles feel weaker than usual. That your legs shake going up stairs or that your arms do not comfortably lift the weight of your protein-laden dinnerplate. This is normal. Shaking, soreness, and a certain amount of weakness after intense exercise is a standard part of post-exercise muscle soreness and will fade in a day or so to be replaced by new strength.

Injured Tissue Cannot Hold Weight or Weight is Sharply Painful

An injury, on the other hand, will not tolerate weight or stress. If you have torn a ligament in your ankle, calf, or knee for example, your leg may feel a sharp pain as you step and you may find that your leg refuses to take the weight at all. If you insist on stepping, you may notice a significant reduction in your ability to hold weight. An injured wrist will not comfortably hold an empty plate or a tennis racket. Soreness can temporarily reduce strength, but injury causes your body to refuse to hold weight and creates intense weakness.

Grip or Flex

Sore Muscles can Grip and Flex Normally

How much mobility or clenching strength does the sore muscle or joint have? For wrist and forearm soreness, try gripping the handle of something tightly in your hand. If you can achieve a strong grip without pain or weakness, then your hand is fine. For calves and ankles, try flexing and pointing your toes, tensing all the way up and down with each. How much strength do you have? If you can achieve a normal grip and flex, you are likely experiencing only soreness.

Injured Muscles Cannot Grip or Flex with Strength or Without Pain

However, if your grip or flex seems unusually weak or this exercise creates a sharp pain sensation at some point in the grip or flex, then you have suffered an injury. Injured wrists and forearm muscles lose gripping strength, while injured ankles and sometimes calf muscles can reduce your ability to point, flex, or grab with your toes while creating tension.

Visit Your Doctor

If you’re still not sure if you are experiencing extreme soreness or a sports injury, the best answer is to go see your doctor or team medic. A medical professional can perform an examination and help ask the important questions that will determine if you just need a few days recovery or if you will need to ice, brace, and care for a healing injury.

How to Treat Sore Muscles

Sore muscles are something every athlete and exercising human deals with. When you push yourself to the limit doing anything from sports training to nature hikes, your muscles break down some tissue and then build themselves up stronger. That break-down is the pain you feel, and the tenderness is blood flowing into the muscles to build new stronger tissue.

To ease soreness, help your body do its thing. Drink plenty of water and amp up the lean protein to provide your body with muscle-building materials. Rest and catch a few extra hours of sleep to give your body time and energy, but also remember to stretch so your muscles grow long, flexible, and more difficult to injure with extensions in the future.

Hot baths with Epsom salt are your best friend if you need to ease the muscle ache and relax and hot water bottles can help treat targeted muscle soreness.

How to Treat a Sports Injury

However, if you are experiencing a sports injury, more specific treatment will be necessary. Whenever you notice the swelling or confirm it is an injury, it’s time for RICE inflammation control.

Rest: Stay off the injury and change up your exercise routine to give the injured soft tissue a break while it heals.

Ice: Apply ice packs for 30 minutes of every 2 hours until the swelling goes down. Then switch to heat.

Compression: Wrap the injury in a compression bandage until the swelling starts to go down. Once you’ve controlled the ballooning, use compression and support braces for the correct body part to provide both protection and keep further swelling to a minimum.

Elevation: When you are resting, elevate your injury to promote recovery. When you can, elevate it at least six inches above your heart which discourages swelling.

Kinesiology Tape: If the injury is somewhere unusual (not the knee, wrist, or ankle) then kinesiology tape can provide a surprising amount of support to ease stress and pressure on the injured soft tissue. Applied correctly, kinesiology tape can help other nearby muscles provide support while the injured muscle or ligament heals up.

If you have experienced a recent sports injury, even if it took you by surprise, we can help. Contact us today to track down the right recovery brace and the correct way to use kinesiology tape to aid in your recovery and get you back to feeling the burn.