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Treat Muscle Soreness After Exercise


Updated June 02, 2014

Muscle soreness after exercise is a common complaint of many athletes. The medical name for this condition is delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and it is thought to be due in large part to inflammation of the muscle as a result of microtears of the muscle fibers.

Treatment of sore muscles after exercise is focused on reducing the inflammation and allowing the sore muscle to heal properly. Some treatments recommended for muscle soreness have a scientific basis, others do not. Here are some common treatments and the rationale for their effectiveness.


The simplest and most reliable treatment for sore muscles is rest. Most people with muscle soreness will improve with no specific treatment within 5 to 7 days. Some simple activity, known as 'active recovery,' can be helpful during this phase of treatment.

Active Recovery

Active recovery means performing less-intense exercise during the recovery phase from an aggressive workout. Active recovery can be beneficial both as a 'cool-down' from a hard workout or as a recovery in the days following a hard workout. Active recovery stimulates blood flow to the muscles, improves circulation in the muscles, and helps reduce muscle pain.

Ice the Muscles

Treating inflammation with ice application is common, and most effective when initiated as soon after the onset of inflammation as possible. Ice application for muscle soreness is probably effective when initiated in the first 48 hours of exercise induced muscle soreness, and probably less effective thereafter.

Consider Massage

The have been some studies that demonstrate a benefit of massage on the treatment of muscle soreness. Massage is thought to simulate blood flow to the area and to diminish swelling within the muscle.

Gentle Stretching

Recent studies have shown that stretching probably does not make a difference in most athletes in preventing or reducing muscle soreness. That said, many athletes find that a stretching routing is their key to quick recovery, and there is no evidence that stretching is harmful or contributes to muscle soreness. If you want to try some gentle stretching, it may help, and can't hurt.

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

Anti-inflammatory medications will help relieve some of the discomfort of muscle soreness, but will not effect the length of time for recovery of the muscle. Early administration of anti-inflammatory medications is most helpful.

Heat Application

The application of heat can help relax a tense, stiff muscle, and should be considered when recovering from delayed onset muscle soreness. When participating in active recovery, heat application before exercise can ensure the muscle is warm and loose.

Topical Creams

Topical creams include Aspercreme, BenGay, and IcyHot. These medications are called counterirritants. These medications do not actually warm the muscle, but rather cause skin irritation, redness, and warmth of the superficial tissues. While these topical applications can provide the perception of pain relief, they have no effects on the underlying muscle. The application of these topical creams is fine, but use caution as the medication can be absorbed into the body, and these should not be used with heat applications as severe skin burns can result.



Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L "Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors" Sports Med. 2003;33(2):145-64.

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