It can be difficult to distinguish between muscle soreness and a more serious injury, such as a stress fracture, since they may initially present in a similar fashion. Both commonly occur after a change in activity. Examples of this are an increase of frequency or intensity of an activity, initiation of a new activity, change in terrain or external conditions, or alterations in equipment. Soreness, pain, joint stiffness, tenderness to the touch, swelling, and possible bruising are often reported.
When you experience muscle soreness, your symptoms may worsen over the first one or two days, peak between days two and three, and then diminish. Muscle soreness also tends to be more diffuse in presentation, to worsen with immobility, and to be relieved by movement and stretching. It’s actually a good thing to experience some degree of soreness after activity because that’s a sign of muscles becoming stronger and adapting to new demands.
With a more serious injury like a stress fracture, you may feel sharp pain, or just soreness or achiness. Symptoms will worsen or linger over time, and they tend to originate from a localized spot, worsen with weight-bearing activity, and decrease with rest.
Bottom line: if symptoms persist longer than seven days or consistently reappear with an increase in activity, consult with your physician.
Andrea Minsky, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and her doctorate in physical therapy from Rutgers University. Andrea has certifications as a USA Triathlon Coach and in Active Release Technique (ART). Her interests lie in orthopedic and sports-related musculoskeletal conditions. She believes in injury prevention and strives to keep her patients active and safe.