Pain vs. Muscle Soreness: What is the Difference?

September 9, 2019 | By: Raleigh Orthopaedic Team

There are many benefits to exercise, including the potential for improved physical and mental well-being. However, there may also be some physical discomfort associated with these activities due to the stressed placed on the body. When experiencing discomfort, it is important to understand the difference between exercise-related muscular soreness and pain. Muscle soreness is a healthy and expected result of exercise whereas pain could mean injury. But pain is personal and different people have different levels of pain tolerance, so how can you tell the difference? The chart below highlights key differences between muscle soreness and pain.

  Muscle Soreness Pain
Type of discomfort: Tender to touch muscles, tired or burning feeling while exercising, minimal dull, tight and achy feeling at rest Ache, sharp pain at rest or when exercising
Onset: During exercise or 24-72 hours after activity During exercise or within 24 hours of activity
Duration: 2-3 days May linger if not addressed
Location: Muscles Muscles or joints
Improves with: Stretching, following movement, and/or more movement, with appropriate rest and recovery Ice, rest, and more movement, except in cases of significant injury
Worsens with: Sitting still Continued activity after appropriate rest and recovery
Appropriate action: Get moving again, after appropriate rest and recovery, but consider a different activity before resuming the activity that led to soreness Consult with medical professional if pain is extreme or lasts more than 1-2 weeks


You may experience pain during or after performing exercise. This may feel sharp. This pain may linger without fully going away, perhaps even after a period of rest which could mean an injury. Pushing through pain can actually worsen the problem or possible injury. If you feel that your pain is extreme or is not resolving after 7-10 days you should make an appointment with one of Raleigh Orthopaedic specialists. Our 24 orthopaedic specialists have advanced training in their respective areas, which include: foot and ankle surgery, hand, wrist and elbow surgery, neck and spine surgery, hip and knee surgery, shoulder surgery, total joint replacement, and sports medicine.

Muscle Soreness

In contrast to pain, muscle soreness typically peaks 24-72 hours after activity. During this time, your muscles may be tender to touch and feel tight and achy. Movement may initially be uncomfortable but moving and gently stretching your muscles will help to decrease soreness. Consider performing alternative exercise activities to give your sore muscles some time to recover while strengthening other muscles.

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Your well-being is important to us. Click the button below or call us to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists. If your injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our Raleigh Orthopaedic Urgent Care locations for immediate care. For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is needed to see one of our physical therapists.