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Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) Causes and Theories

Have you ever experienced muscle soreness post exercise?

Muscle soreness from exercise

Many exercisers have experienced temporary muscle soreness and stiffness, as well as muscle aches and pain following unaccustomed strenuous exercise which has left a feeling of weakness and discomfort in their muscles and joints.

Residual delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) may occur from between 24 hours to 48 hours pending unaccustomed exercise. While it can be an alarming sensation to newcomers to exercise it is a sign that your muscles are adapting to the physical stresses of training.

Eccentric Muscle Contractions leading to Muscle Soreness

It has been found that intensity and duration of physical effort is proportionate to the level of discomfort felt. The most important factor is the type of exercise performed.

High force and high tension eccentric muscle actions produce the greatest level of post-exercise muscle damage.

Eccentric contractions are characterised by active resistance of muscle lengthening.

Exercise Can Lead To Muscle Pain The Following Day

Hard exercise can lead to muscular pain the following day. This is known as DOMS- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Hard exercise can lead to muscular pain the following day. This is known as DOMS- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

DOMS Sequence of soreness from working out

The sequence of events leading to delayed onset muscle soreness

1. The body performs exercise which it is not accustomed to which involves eccentric muscle contractions.

2. Damage caused to muscle contractile proteins.

3. Metabolite Accumulation as a result of increased muscle cell damage.

4. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) from inflammation leads to post exercise soreness, tenderness and pain.

5. Inflammation prompts the adaptive processes of the body to commence.

Physiological causes of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

It is believed that any one of the below physical factors may cause DOMS and muscle soreness after workouts

  1. Minuscule tears to mucle tissue damage cells which are responsible for the release of chemical substances that stimulate free nerve endings. Examples of these chemical substances are Histamines, anaerobic metabolites and proteolytic enzymes.
  2. Osmotic pressure causing swelling of surrounding tissues (fluid retention).
  3. Cramps or muscle spasms which are sudden involuntary muscle contractions.
  4. Alterations in cell's calcium regulation mechanisms.
  5. Inflammatory responses which lead to increased white blood cell count, interleukin-1 beta, as well as monocyte and accumulation of leucocytes.

McArdle, W.D., Katch, F.I. and Katch, V.L. Essentials of Exercise Physiology. 2nd Ed., Baltimore., Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2000.

Eccentric Muscle Actions cause Muscle Soreness

Mucle Soreness is exaggerated by eccentric muscle actions.

Mucle Soreness is exaggerated by eccentric muscle actions.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness Theories

There have previously been a number of theories put forward to explain DOMS which include

Spasm Theory

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In Spasm Theory it was noted that static stretching of muscles reduced the level of post workout muscle soreness however despite an effect on the level of post workout soreness the effect of DOMS remained.

Tear Theory

By proposing that minute damage including tears and ruptures of muscle fibres as a result of the structural changes to the muscle fibres bought about by eccentric muscle contractions. The minuscule damage stimulates flow of white blood cells to the area of damage in response to actute inflammation and leads to the release of histamines and prostaglandins which are responsible for activitation of pain receptors. This forms the basis of Hough's Torn Tissue Hypothesis.

Excess Metabolite Theory

This proposes that metabolite accumulation occurs in exercising muscles following a break in activity. The metabolites trigger osmotic changes in the cellular environment which leads the Edema. However the Edema does not fully explain increased muscle soreness as a result of eccentric contractions as higher levels of metabolite build-up is experienced following concentric muscle activity.

Connective Tissue Damage Theory

Damage to connective tissue as a result of muscle contraction leads to deep tissue damage and an imbalance in collagen metabolism therefore contributing to DOMS.

Photo Credits

Powerlifting Photo from Jontunnell CC BY on Flickr


Liam Hallam (author) from Nottingham UK on August 27, 2011:

Thanks Kitty, prasetio30 and Tom for your feedback. I'm glad this has been able to help you. Thank you again CF

Tom rubenoff from United States on August 27, 2011:

You write a great article. Nice job of getting and arranging this information. I've been curious about the causes of muscle soreness, cramping and spasms. I learned a lot here.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on August 20, 2011:

I agree with kittythedreamer, this was nice hub and complete with useful information, though I don't really love fitness. Thanks for share with us. I learn much from you. Vote up. Take care!


Kitty Fields from Summerland on August 20, 2011:

Wonderfully informative hub, CyclingFitness. Voted up and useful. You described the causes for sore muscles perfectly! I've taken anatomy and learned all about this, so you were right on. :)

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