Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness

My arms are refusing to bend right now.1 Why, you might ask?

The one on the right, that’s why.

Actually, they do bend. But, Holy Moses, it feel like a thousand steely needles forged in the heart of a thousand suns stabbing a thousand points on my triceps and chest when they do bend. I need to toughen up. I am toughening up, damn it.

All this preposterously disproportionate suffering got me wondering “What causes soreness, anyway?” What the hell is going on in my muscles? Isn’t lactic acid somehow involved? Did I injure myself in some capacity?

Let’s start at the beginning.

‘Preposterously Disproportionate Suffering Because Of 100 Push-Ups On Saturday’ is better known as ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.’2 I thought DOMS was caused by excess lactic acid in the muscles. During strenuous exercise, lactic acid is one of the byproducts of the chemistry which provides muscles with energy and is produced faster than can be removed by the muscle tissues. The excess build-up, I believed, took a few days to fully remove and was what causes soreness. This, as it turns out, is unlikely to be correct.

“Several myths surround the issue of muscle soreness. One misconception is that muscle soreness is due to lactic acid accumulation. It is known, however, that lactic acid is removed from the muscle within 40 to 60 minutes following an intense bout of exercise (muscle soreness usually occurs within a day or two.)”3

Well I’ll be damned. What the hell is the answer then? As it turns out, the exact causes of DOMS are not entirely known.

The strenuous use of skeletal muscles has been documented to cause damage to its own intricate parts, in and around the nanometer scale.4 To begin the healing process, the body triggers the inflammatory response in the damaged areas. This inflammation, it is hypothesized, triggers a process which leads to an increase in the mechanical sensitivity of the pain receptors in said areas. While washing my hair on a normal day, the muscles in my arms would send signals like ‘light pressure’ or ‘some stretching.’ But these past three days, those signals have been stamped over, replaced by ‘preposterously painful pressure,’ or ‘stupendously sharp stretching.’ Or ‘Hey Stupid, stop using your arms.’To finish that theory, it is worth mentioning that this ‘sensitivity-increasing process’ which the pain receptors undergo is believed to take some time. If demonstrated, the fact would fit nicely with the observed delay in the onset of soreness.

At the end of the day, it is worth reminding you, my audience, that the exact details regarding the relationship between damage, inflammation, and soreness are still not understood.5 Sorting through any of the really detailed accounts of the relationship is out of the scope of both this blog and, frankly, this author. My brain almost melted. Seriously. What I leave you with, my audience, is the currently proposed explanation of why we get sore after rigorous exercise. It is probably correct in its major themes, but is subject to revision in its precise detail. Or, at least, that is what the landscape looks like to this humble layman.

Thanks for reading.


1. My Cheeto finger has healed though!

2. Actually, it was 15 push-ups, collapse from muscular exhaustion, mutter a whole host of bad words, then 85 girl push-ups. Don’t. Judge. Me.

3. Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, by Peter Kokkinos, pg 111, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2010

4. “What has been observed to accompany soreness are ultrastructural disruptions of myofilaments, especially at the Z-disc, as well as damage to the muscle’s connective tissues.” –

5. Ken Nosaka, in Skeletal Muscle Damage and Repair, pg 59, ends his introductory paragraph on soreness with “Although DOMS is an extremely common symptom, its underlying mechanisms are not clearly understood, nor are the reasons for the delay.”


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