Instead, though, you may be dealing with inflamed muscles, which is technically something different than sore ones. They tend to happen post-workout or after repetitive use, and are an important part of the muscle building process. “Muscle tissue breaks down and ‘microtears’ in the muscle occur, and this is part of the rebuilding process and how muscles become stronger,” explains Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab. “These ‘microtears’ create an inflammatory process that is actually needed and beneficial.”
However, inflammation can also occur due to injury, which is decidedly not beneficial to getting stronger. “This occurs because the above outlined process becomes ineffective,” says Martinez. “When the muscle breakdown process outpaces the muscle rebuilding process, then injury occurs.”
Soreness, on the other hand, is more common and is usually correlated with post-workout. “Common signs are muscle fatigue, tenderness, and lack of mobility,” says Martinez. “Soreness is beneficial and part of the muscle rebuilding process. Inflammation pertaining to injury is different, and you will notice increased pain, redness, and potentially swelling.”
The more you use certain muscles in your daily activities, the more likely they are to become inflamed. “Smaller muscles in the shoulder, such as a the rotator cuff muscles and biceps muscle are more prone to inflammation, especially in individuals that are completing repetitive overhead motions,” says Martinez, also noting that the muscles in your ankle and shin tend to suffer from overuse, too.
If you find yourself feeling inflamed, the good old RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) is the first course of action, followed by a conversation with your healthcare provider. “If the situation pertains to post-workout, then the focus needs to be on recovery and rebuilding the muscle,” says Martinez. “Activities such as stretching, foam rolling, massage, and light movement are all beneficial and can expedite this process.” And when in doubt, give yourself an excuse to take the day off. Trainer’s orders.
Inflammation isn’t the only thing worth being aware of after your workout: Delayed muscle soreness is a thing, and here’s what you need to know. And if you need more recovery inspo, try these trainer-approved tips for beating soreness after your workout.
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