Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Squash - DOMS
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The Mystery of DOMS

          Just about all of us at one time or another has felt sore the day or so after a workout. If you’re like most individuals, you probably blew it off, rested a little and chalked it up to an overly aggressive workout, or the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. Because so many misconceptions exist about this phenomenon, I thought you might like to hear the real story—at least as much as is known so far…

          The feeling of pain, stiffness or discomfort in muscles that occurs a day or so after a workout is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and is abbreviated as DOMS. While DOMS has been under scientific scrutiny since at least 1902, at the present time, the actual biological process behind it remains a mystery. What is known is that DOMS is a complex process, and every piece of the puzzle uncovered, makes it all the more mysterious. Many theories exist to explain the occurrence of DOMS. Some of the more plausible theories include:

·       The torn tissue theory which advocates that microscopic tears in the muscles are the cause of DOMS.

·       The connective tissue theory subscribes to the idea that damage to the connective tissue attached to muscle is the cause of DOMS.

·       The Inflammation theory states that the pain felt during DOMS is simply a by-product of our bodies attempt to fix the damage that has been caused by a workout.

          While each of these theories, and others which I have not discussed, do explain some of the aspects of DOMS, no theory fully explains the entire process. The following is a quick run down of what we currently know about DOMS.

1. DOMS-related pain usually occurs within the first 24 to 72 hours following exercise. Specifically, DOMS usually occurs following overly difficult exercise or any activity that we are not used to. For example, you could perform every exercise in your gym but if it snowed tonight and you had to shovel your pavement, you would probably experience DOMS because there isn’t an exercise in your gym that mimics shoveling the snow.

2. Of the three types of muscle in our bodies, heart muscle, smooth muscle (which lines our blood vessels) and skeletal muscle (which is attached to our skeletons, such as biceps and triceps muscle), DOMS effects only skeletal muscle.

3. DOMS is not caused by lactic acid buildup in the muscle. This is the myth that refuses to die. Within one hour after exercise, most, if not all, of the lactic acid produced is removed and recycled. This misconception of lactic acid causing DOMS probably became started because lactic acid is in fact produced in the muscles during intense exercise and does cause muscles to fatigue. The key point to remember is that muscle fatigue and DOMS are two different processes.

4. DOMS does not result in any long term damage to muscle. This makes sense because if it did, we would expect to see great declines in the abilities of professional athletes during the course of their careers. Interestingly, DOMS-related pain is not felt at rest. In other words, if you are sitting quietly reading these words, you shouldn’t experience DOMS until you start to move. This is one way you can discriminate between DOMS and more severe injuries to the body, which will be painful at rest.

5. Studies show that the vast majority of pain associated with DOMS is caused by eccentric muscle actions, in which the muscle fibers are lengthened as force is applied to them. Eccentric muscle actions (or negatives as they are sometimes called in the gym) occur, when you lower a weight, such as during the descending phase of a squat or an biceps curl.

How can you prevent DOMS?

  • Start slowly. Starting an exercise program slowly is your best defense against DOMS. For example, if you performed one set of a chest press at a light weight—say, 12-15 repetitions— you would feel much less DOMS 24-72 hours later than if you had performed 3 sets of 12-15 reps. Sometimes performing the same exercise that caused the DOMS—but at a lower intensity— is also effective at reducing DOMS-related pain
  • Vitamin C. Some people take vitamin C to reduce DOMS pain. Since vitamin C is needed to make connective tissue and since there is damage to connective tissue in DOMS, in theory this makes sense. In fact, at least one study did find that vitamin C could alleviate DOMS. However this study is almost 50 years old and has been criticized by other researchers because of flaws in the study design. If you are going to experiment with vitamin C I suggest using less than 250 mg. Some evidence suggests that humans may be unable to absorb more than 250 mg of vitamin C at a time. Secondly, some people have a genetic condition called iron overload disease in which their bodies store large amounts of iron. Too much iron can cause organ failure and death. Because vitamin C greatly enhances absorption of iron, I personally feel everyone should have their iron levels checked before using vitamin C supplements.
  • Massage. In my opinion this is a fuzzy area. I have seen research that finds that massage may improve DOMS and other research that indicates that it does not. Because there are many different types of massage, this may be the reason behind the conflicting findings. One thing is certain, massage feels good and when I become rich I intend to get a massage everyday – DOMS or no DOMS!
  • Stretching. While a staple of many exercise programs, some studies find that stretching can actually cause DOMS if you are not used to stretching! The bottom line on stretching is if you want to do it great. Just do it after your workout when your muscles are warmer—and start out slowly to reduce DOMS from rearing its ugly head.

That’s it for now. I hope I've been able to answer all of your DOMS-related questions. As always, feel free to email me about this or or any other exercise or nutrition related question you may have.

Joe Cannon, MS, CSCS, is an exercise physiologist, author and lecturer in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. He certifies fitness professionals via AAAI/ ISMA at both local and national levels. He is the author of Nutrition Essentials: A Guidebook for the Fitness Professional. He can be reached via email at JoeCannonMSCSCS hotmail or at his web site Questions?
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