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Understanding Muscle Pain

Pain usually follows more minor twinges or stiffness in the affected body area. The stiffness could last for days or weeks before onset of more severe pain.

Muscle stiffness is something we can all relate to and usually develops when muscles are put to work harder than they are used to. Whether this be a return to the sports field after a period of inactivity or even a long day of housework or gardening can lead to stiffness 24-48 hours later.

Delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS)

This is a muscle’s reaction to being asked to work hard which leads to a build-up of lactic acid.

Excessive lactic acid makes muscle ache. It usually takes a day or two for your body to deal with the excess before the soreness gradually eases.

See here for tips on treating stiffness and minor injuries .

As a rule-of-thumb, aching for more than five days may point to actual muscle injury, overstrain or tear. At this point it is highly recommended to seek professional assessment and treatment from a Chartered Physiotherapist.

In another article we discuss the difference between acute and chronic pain .

Generalised inflammatory disorder

Stiffness covering a number of areas or joints during the day that follows a definite pattern may point to a generalised inflammatory disorder.

A stiffness and ache pattern in a 24 hour period such as:

  • Absent during sleep
  • worse on wakening and rising
  • improving shortly after getting up
  • gone or virtually gone mid morning through the middle of the day
  • but comes back in a milder, tired format in the evening

The length and severity of morning stiffness is a very significant symptom and may be the sign of a potentially serious rheumatic condition.

This can be easily investigated by a simple blood test and is worth discussing your symptoms with the G.P if you recognise such patterns.

Overuse vs Degeneration of a joint

Stiffness within a single joint can result from overuse or overstrain, similar to muscle stiffness. However it may also be a sign of early degenerative changes within the joint.

This may appear as a single stiff joint which clears quickly in the morning but comes back after rest, such as after sitting at a desk for a period of time.

Known as joint wear and tear or degeneration, this presentation of stiffness tends to feel deeper and localised. Joint stiffness is generally not present when the joint is at ease, but comes on with or after motion. Sometimes some slight or gross joint swelling may also be present, which is often worse after use.

In the modern day, orthopaedic surgeons can replace many severely worn joints. However, such surgery is not to be undertaken lightly. It is far more preferable to recognise the degenerative signs early and learn how to prevent or slow down further wear and tear.

If you think you may be suffering symptoms of degenerative joints then we highly recommend you schedule a consultation with one of our Chartered Physiotherapists who will be able to provide a full assessment and diagnoses.

In many cases, it only takes a couple of sessions with a musculoskeletal specialist to put you on the right track for an effective self-management strategy. 

by Simon.


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