Muscle Aches and Pains

Though not serious, muscle cramps or the muscle soreness that comes from overextending yourself can be very uncomfortable.

And the weekend gardener is just as likely to be affected as the world-class athlete.

What is it?

There are two common types of muscle pain. The first is soreness and stiffness that develop as the result of overdoing some physical activity – whether running a marathon, digging in the garden or simply carrying a heavy bag of groceries.

This kind of pain, which doctors call delayed-onset muscle soreness, typically begins a day or two after the activity and can last up to a week.

When a muscle suddenly contracts and can’t relax, the result is the second type of muscle pain, known as a cramp. Most common in the thigh, calf or foot, cramps can strike at any time, even during sleep.

What causes it?

Even if you are in good shape, any new physical activity can cause muscle soreness. For example, if you are a runner, helping a friend move furniture will probably make your arms and shoulders ache.

Most experts think that the pain is a symptom of microscopic tears in the muscles, which rebuild themselves in a matter of days.

Activities that require lengthening a muscle against force – such as running downhill or lowering a weight – are most likely to produce this kind of injury. Almost any kind of exercise or activity involves this type of movement.

In contrast, muscle cramps are not the result of an injury – though no one knows exactly why they occur. The cause may be an imbalance in the minerals that govern muscle contraction and relaxation – calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium – or a lack of fluid.

Exercising too strenuously during the day may lead to calf cramps painful enough to wake you from a sound sleep, as can wearing high heels or sleeping with your toes pointed or with bedding wrapped too tightly around your legs.

What are the symptoms?

  • Sudden tightening of the muscles during physical activity.
  • Soreness and stiffness in the muscles after activity, often not beginning until 24-48 hours later.
  • Muscles spasms occurring at night, usually in the calf muscle.
  • A muscle that feels hard to the touch, called a knot.
  • In severe cases, visible twitching of the affected muscle.

Are there any natural therapies?

To balance the minerals needed for proper muscle contraction, take supplemental calcium and magnesium routinely. (Most people get enough sodium in their diet.) Add vitamin E daily if you are prone to exercise-related cramps or night-time calf cramps.

For soreness, consider the herbs bromelain and white willow bark, which have the same benefits as – and can be substituted for – over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. In fact, they are gentler to your system and help the muscle to heal themselves.

Bromelain (an enzyme derives from pineapples) is an anti-inflammatory and helps excess fluid to drain from the site of a muscle injury. Often called ‘nature’s aspirin’, white willow bark comes from the inner bark of white willow trees and is an effective pain reliever.

Body-builders use the nutritional supplement creatine to improve strength, and there’s good evidence that it aids in repairing microscopic tears following a strenous workout or injury.

The herb valerian is a natural sleep aid that can be useful if soreness interferes with sleep. Take these supplements in any combination you like until the soreness goes away.

What else can I do?

  • Drink lots of fluids before, during and after exercise.
  • Warm up before exercise and stretch afterwards to help muscles relax.
  • If pain is severe, apply ice to sore muscles to reduce inflammation.

Did you know?

Pregnant women should take care while they are exercising, because they are at higher risk of muscle cramps. The metabolic needs of the developing baby affect the normal balance of body fluids, making cramps more likely.