Differentiating between soreness and pain: What is “normal”?

Published - Mar 15, 2022

Differentiating between soreness and pain: What is “normal”?

By Dr. Mike Hearron, PT, OCS, physical therapist at IRG Physical Therapy – Gateway

Deciphering between expected muscle soreness during and after strenuous activity versus pain from injury can be difficult for anyone, especially for those who may be inexperienced with exercise. See below for my tips on distinguishing between these two sensations:


Soreness can generally be broken up into two forms – intra-workout soreness and post-workout soreness.

Intra-workout soreness occurs during movement and can be described as a building up, burning-type sensation in the exercise’s targeted muscle(s), which tends to ease within one to two minutes of ending the activity. Involved muscles may have a feeling of fatigue and/or fullness during or immediately after exercise.

Post-workout soreness (often referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness – or DOMS) can occur anywhere from one to three days following activity. Typically, affected muscles feel tight, and some level of discomfort is experienced with movement. More often than not, this is the type of soreness that individuals may not be familiar with, leading to a feeling of having injured or “overdone” something to be experiencing these symptoms. It is important to note that DOMS is very normal and often expected after performing an exercise that one is unaccustomed to.

Symptoms of DOMS can be managed and eased with:

  • An active post-workout cooldown and stretch routine.
  • Engagement in light activity (e.g., a walk) on the days following a strenuous workout.
  • Performance of resistance training with antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups to those affected by DOMS, or to other non-DOMS affected muscles, to encourage increased circulation throughout the body.


Pain is multifaceted and can be difficult to describe. The discomfort that occurs as a result of exercise can be thought of as increased irritation of an involved tissue and can linger from hours to days following the original activity – it is typically not a cause for concern. However, when pain occurs that is impactful to one's ability to exercise or perform regular activities of daily living, the individual should be evaluated by a medical professional in a timely manner. It is important not to work through pain that feels sharp or motion limiting, or is not improving with rest or cessation of activity.

Physical therapists are equipped to educate on the differences between pain and expected soreness, as well as the expectations as to where certain exercises should be felt in the body. If pain is experienced that is ongoing, recurring or worsening, request a free injury screen with IRG. Our providers work one-on-one with patients to determine the cause of pain and to develop individualized rehabilitation plans designed to get all individuals back to the activities that matter to them most.

Dr. Mike Hearron, PT, OCS, is a physical therapist at IRG Physical Therapy – Gateway with specialized training in blood-flow restriction training. To learn more about the services provided at IRG Physical Therapy – Gateway, please contact 425.686.7655; or click here to schedule an appointment with Mike.

Click here to request an appointment with an IRG provider — Washington is a direct access state that allows patients to self-refer to physical therapy. Call 425.316.8046 to find the clinic nearest you and start the journey back to your best self.

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