April 23, 2018
Why Do Muscles Get Sore?
by Bryan Schubert
As we age, we begin to complain more of pains in our muscles and joints. We seem to stiffen up with age, to the point that just bending over to get the paper can cause us to wince in pain.
This pain can be so fierce that we’re sure it begins in our bones. But the real cause of stiffness and soreness is not in our joints or bones, according to research at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, but in the muscles and connective tissues that move the joints.
What does it mean to be flexible?
Flexibility is the medical term used to describe the range of a joint’s motion from full movement in one direction to full movement in the other. The greater the range of movement, the more flexible the joint.
If you can bend forward at the hips and touch your toes with your fingertips, you have good flexibility, or range of motion of the hip joints. But can you bend over easily with a minimal expenditure of energy and force? The exertion required to flex a joint is just as important as its range of possible motion.
Different factors limit the flexibility and ease of movement in different joints and muscles. In the elbow and knee, the bony structure itself sets a definite limit. In other joints, such as the ankle, hip, and back, the soft tissue—muscle and connective tissue—limit the motion range.
That is to say, that if we don’t regularly move our muscles and joints through their full ranges of motion, they lose some of their potential. That’s why when we try to move a joint after a long period of inactivity, we feel pain, which discourages further use.
However, other factors can trigger sore muscles. Here are some of them:
1. Too Much Exercise
Do you subscribe to the saying, “No pain, no gain?” If so, then you’ve no doubt already experienced sore muscles at some point in your life.
The problem with most people is that they exercise too much thinking that it is the fastest and surest way to lose weight. Even though they are what, quite literally, holds the body together, people tend to ignore their muscles and connective tissues until they start to ache.
2. Aging and Inactivity
Connective tissue binds muscle to bone by tendons, binds bone to bone by ligaments, and covers & unites muscles with sheaths called fasciae. With age, the tendons, ligaments, and fasciae become less extensible. The tendons, with their densely packed fibers, are the most difficult to stretch. The easiest are the fasciae. But if they are not stretched to improve joint mobility, the fasciae shorten, placing undue pressure on the nerve pathways in the muscle fasciae. Many of our aches and pains are the result of nerve impulses traveling along these pressured pathways.
Sore muscles can be excruciating due to the body’s reaction to a cramp or ache. In this reaction, called the splinting reflex, the body automatically immobilizes a sore muscle by making it contract. Therefore, a sore muscle can set off a vicious cycle of pain.
First, an unused muscle becomes sore from exercise or being held in an unusual position. The body then responds with the splinting reflex, shortening the connective tissue around the muscle, which causes more pain, and eventually the whole area is aching. One of the most common sites for this problem is the lower back.
4. Spasm theory
In the physiology laboratory at the University of Southern California, researchers have set out to learn more about this cycle of pain.
Using a special device, they measured electrical activity in the muscles. The researchers knew that normal, well-relaxed muscles produce no electrical activity, whereas, muscles that are not fully relaxed show considerable activity.
In one experiment, they measured these electrical signals in the muscles of people with athletic injuries. First with the muscle immobilized, and then, after the muscle had been stretched.
In almost every case, exercises that stretched or lengthened the muscle diminished electrical activity and relieved pain, either totally or partially.
These experiments led to the “spasm theory,” an explanation of the development and persistence of muscle pain in the absence of any obvious cause, such as traumatic injury.
According to this theory, a muscle that is overworked or used in a strange position becomes fatigued, and as a result, the muscle becomes sore.
Therefore, it’s extremely important to know the limitations and capacity of the muscles in order to avoid pain and injury. This just goes to show that there is no truth in the saying, “No pain, no gain.” The real key is daily exercise, stretching, and a healthy diet.
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