Where is the line? Pain vs. Soreness


No pain, no gain
— Some idiot

I don't know where this old school quote came from, but in the physical medicine world, it definitely does not hold true! We want patients to flow through exercises pain free, but what is pain? And when is it okay, if ever? Lets take a closer look at this topic. 

What is the difference between muscle/joint pain, versus muscle/joint soreness? This is a great question and one that I often have a hard time articulating to patients. There are multiple differences, actually. Let’s start simple. When does the discomfort start? Often times with soreness, the discomfort begins following a movement. It lasts for a period of time, and then it gradually dissipates.  It can take 5 seconds to go away, or maybe a couple of days if you have just gone through an intense training session. Typically when the discomfort last longer than a brief period, we in the health industry consider this type of discomfort Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness or DOMS. The discomfort usually feels like a tightness, or maybe an achy feeling. Within 24-48 hours the discomfort diminishes and the person becomes free of discomfort, usually feeling great!


Now pain is another type of discomfort all together. Pain is the body telling our brain that there is a PERCEIVED threat to the body. Pain often comes on very quickly. It seems sharp, annoying or agonizing.  It typically lasts longer than a couple of days, and doesn't seem to improve throughout the duration of its existence. The interesting thing about pain, is that it doesn't always mean something is injured! It is simply our body saying, "I think this stimulus, is going to hurt me!" Through past experience and perceived notions, the signal is sent to our brains, and we feel the painful sensation. This is important to understand when dealing with pain.  It’s not "just in your head," that's not what I am saying, but there should be an understanding that not all pain is bad as well. Pain can be a valuable tool, and can be used to harness great achievements when understood correctly.

In short, soreness vs. pain--both are okay. Soreness is temporary, while pain is variable. No one likes to be in pain or be sore, but both are vital to our bodies growth mechanisms and are needed. Don't be afraid of either, embrace them. Strengthen your body to withstand many different stimuli so that it understands, not all perceived threats are painful, and that soreness is a temporary discomfort that will lead to greater outcomes!