Soreness vs Pain: When Should I Call My Physical Therapist?

Soreness vs Pain: When Should I Call My Physical Therapist?

Whether you are starting on a new exercise program or if you are someone who exercises regularly, it is important to understand the difference between soreness and pain. Similarly, athletes who are competing need to know when their muscles are sore due to the exertion of their sport or when they are dealing with pain that needs further attention.

When exercising, we put our body under physical stress. This physical stress breaks down our muscles and tissues. By adapting and recovering from this breakdown we get stronger and are then able to take on more physical stress. For example, if I regularly walk a mile in 15 minutes 3 times per week, over time it will get easier for me to complete the mile in 15 minutes. After a few weeks of adaptation and recovery from this amount of exercise I may then be able to walk a mile in 13 minutes. If I continue to challenge myself I can continue to improve by walking a mile in a shorter period of time. This holds true for aerobic exercise (walking, biking, running, etc) and strengthening exercises (lifting weights, bodyweight exercises, etc)

The process of muscle breakdown due to the stress of exercise is what makes us sore after a workout. After a workout that includes squats and lunges our legs and hips may be sore for a few days. This is a normal part of exercise and we call this soreness DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This soreness in the muscles is a sign that we have stressed our body and will generally subside in a few days or with a light recovery workout (something less stressful).

Pain is different. Pain can occur in the muscles or the joints and may not subside after a few days like DOMS will. Pain generally will not feel better with a recovery workout like a light jog or bike ride. If the feeling of pain does not subside with rest within about a week it is then a good idea to call your physical therapist or medical provider. Often when pain is addressed early it is easier to get back to the activities you enjoy without pain more quickly.

Below is a table that can serve as a quick reference to better understand the difference between soreness and pain.


Soreness vs Pain

Soreness Pain
Type of Discomfort  

Tender when touching muscles, tired or burning feeling while exercising, minimal dull, tight and achy feeling at rest


Ache, sharp pain at rest or when exercising. Pain with movement.


 During exercise or 24-72 hours   after activity (Delayed Onset   Muscle Soreness)


During exercise or within 24 hours of activity




 2-3 days (can be longer)


May linger if not addressed






Muscles or Joints


Improves with:


 Stretching, following movement


Ice, rest


Worse with:


 Sitting still


Continued activity


Appropriate Action:


 Resume offending activity once   soreness subsides



Consult with medical professional if pain is extreme or lasts >1-2 weeks


Source: adapted from


Not sure if you are dealing with muscle soreness or pain? Or do you have questions about beginning or how to progress your physical activity/exercise program? Our physical therapists can help you by recovering from any aches or pains you may be experiencing and helping design a plan to return to your desired activities. Check out our website or give us a call to schedule an appointment and get back to the activities you enjoy pain free. Our 15 Corporate Drive and 2025 Hamburg Turnpike locations in Wayne are open Monday through Friday.

Next week Gerry from Challenger Strength will outline some of his favorite strategies to address DOMS when he is working with his clients and athletes.

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