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When Exercise Hurts, Do This…

February 15, 2011 by  

When Exercise Hurts, Do This…

The top three excuses for why Americans are not getting enough exercise are: 1) There’s not enough time; 2) A lack of stick-to-it-ness; and 3) exercise hurts. The issues of time management and sticking with something are personal choice issues. Why and how to make those choices are a topic of another column. In this article, I’d like to address the pain issue.

A little stiffness and soreness is both expected and healthy after exercise. When the muscles are placed under stress, the bones placed under a load and the lungs made to kick into high gear, the body is strengthening itself. Inflammation comes as part of the healing response, protecting the area and sending signals to the brain that healing (repair) needs to be done.

Prolonged soreness and pain, however, is not good. Chronic inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are two examples of bad exercise pain. The body remains inflamed when repair is not happening as a result of too much physical stress, depth of injury or simple lack of adequate rest. DOMS occurs when muscle tissue has torn and is in need of repair. Both occur when wrong exercise is carried out.

Exercise should not lead to lasting or chronic pain. If pain associated with exercise or any physical activity is common for you, then you are doing something wrong. Even too much of a good thing is bad. Here are some things to be aware of…

Keep your cardio training within your target heart rate. If you are wheezing and huffing just to say hello to the person next to you, or experience burning in the lungs, then it is best to ease off the strain until pain subsides. If you are jogging, slow down. If on a treadmill, decrease the incline.

If you are weight training and usually feel pain in specific areas after workouts, you may be overtraining strong muscles at the expense of weaker ones. Many people choose to keep adding weight to their bench presses to increase the size of their pectoral muscles. However, they neglect their back and neck muscles and then experience shoulder and neck pain.

The key is to work the weaker muscles to build them up while backing off the stronger ones for a period of time. Muscular balance is the key to creating healthy physical scaffolding.

If your body hurts, you are doing something very wrong and may need to hire a trainer or fire the one you have. If you experience exercise aches and pains that don’t seem to go away, then you need to address the inflammation response.

With chronic inflammation comes pain, stiffness and limited range of motion. None of these are healthy. Here are seven simple ways of reducing exercise-induced inflammation and pain:

  • Reduce exercise levels to more reasonable ones.
  • Proper warm-ups and cool-downs.
  • Drink plenty of fresh water.
  • Do light stretches before a workout and deeper stretches after the body is warmed and the blood is moving.
  • Have a full body massage to help move lactic acid and relax muscle stiffness. Thai massage is high on my list for this purpose.
  • Avoid consuming foods that cause inflammation, and consume more of those that help reduce inflammation. For more information about what these foods are, click here.
  • Apply ice and/or heat to the painful areas. Since this is a widely debated topic and incorrect use can make a situation worse, let’s discuss it!

The answer is simple even though the debate can be heated. But there can be no debate when one understands the mechanisms behind pain, spasm and inflammation and how the application of cold and heat affect them.

When an injury happens (such as a sprain) inflammation occurs to protect the affected site. When the nervous system senses an injury, it sends signals to the brain that interprets them as “pain.” The new signal is sent to the injured area, telling the muscles to reduce blood supply in an effort to reduce swelling. However, this blood deficit causes more pain, swelling and spasms.

In response to the physical trauma and inflammation, the body sends white blood cells to the area to begin the healing response, which includes the removal of waste products at the area and, thus, pain reduction.

There are several types of white blood cells and two are important in this discussion. Neutrophils release chemicals involved in the inflammatory response while also recruiting other inflammatory cells and protecting the injured area from infection. Basophils release two chemicals at the injury site, histamine and heparin. Histamine relaxes blood vessels and heparin helps prevent clotting. Both aid in the free movement of blood to help heal the damaged tissue site.

If left unchecked, chronic inflammation can result in fewer red blood cells, less oxygen and fewer nutrients available at the site to begin the healing process. This cycle of pain, elevated white blood cells, lower red blood cells, excess waste material, more pain and inflammation can continue for days, weeks, even years if not treated properly. Correct application of ice and heat is the method of treating soft tissue injuries, pain, spasms and inflammation. Incorrect application, however, can prolong the problem and make it become chronic.

While at opposite ends of the temperature spectrum, heat and cold both create a healing response. If you think of your stove and your freezer, you can easily see the result of either. Heat melts and increases surface area. Cold constricts and prevents expansion of fluids. Heat moves things along while cold keeps them in a state of suspended animation. So how do these temperatures affect the body?

Heat causes the body to circulate more blood and to remove toxins. This allows more fresh oxygen and nutrients to the injured area, which begins and continues the healing process while removing the toxins that cause scar tissue and chronic pain. Cold, on the other hand, retards swelling and reduces pain.

Within limits, both temperature extremes shut off pain signals; heat by relaxing the affected nerves and cold by numbing them. This is good because when pain signals are not sent to the brain there is no response signal generated telling the muscles to contract (spasm) in order to protect the injury site.

After proper application of heat or cold over time, the pain-spasm-inflammation cycle is broken and effective healing of the area can begin.

So… to determine whether it’s better to apply ice or heat to an injury, you must first determine whether the pain you are experiencing is caused by inflammation or muscle constriction (spasm). Once this is determined, follow these three rules:

  • If an injury is acute (caused by new trauma, like a twisted ankle or pulled neck muscle), it is best to apply cold within the first five minutes to reduce swelling, inflammation and pain. Ice packs, ice cubes, a frozen bag of peas or cold gels can be applied. Apply ice for 20 minutes, remove it for 20 minutes, then repeat as necessary.
  • When swelling is down and the pain cycle is broken, stop the cold and apply heat. This will bring oxygen and nutrient rich blood to the area to relax muscles, remove waste products and promote healing.
  • Never heat an inflamed area and never ice a constricted area. Inflammation is an expanding reaction and needs to be reduced, so cold is the answer. A spasm is a constriction that needs relaxing, so heat is the answer.

Now that you have several tools to help you prevent pain and inflammation related to exercise, why not give it a try again? The results can be life changing.

–Dr. Mark Wiley


Dr. Mark Wiley

is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. The Wiley Method provides a revolutionary way of providing recovery and prevention of chronic pain, illness and disease. Grab your FREE COPY of Dr. Mark Wiley's "The 3 Secrets to Optimal Health" HERE.

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  • Martin Gorelick

    “When pain is experienced, the body sends more white blood cells to the affected area.”

    Um, no. White blood cells fight infection, not pain. A doctor would know that. A motivational speaker/huckster wouldn’t.

    “What’s more, this process of retarding oxygen and nutrients causes a new “injury” to the area.”
    So the body reacts to pain by hurting itself and setting up a neverending cycle of damage? Seriously? You just typed that with a straight face?

    • ML

      What you expect? Consider the source and for whom it was written.

    • Dr. Mark Wiley

      Martin, thank you for your feedback and thoughts on this article. You are correct in stating that white blood cells do not fight pain. In fact, you pointed out an important typo here. The sentence should read, “inflammation-induced pain.”

      However, you are incorrect in stating that white blood cells only fight infection. They also are used to fight inflammation and remove the waste products associated with it.

      Seeing your misunderstanding, not only based on my typo but also on the subject itself, I have sent the editor a slightly expanded section that speaks more directly to the role of white blood cells in inflammation and the healing response.

      Thanks again, for your contribution.

  • M. J. Borgerding RN

    Mr. Gorelick is obviously not a doctor either.

    White blood cells respond to any inflamatory process.

    Dr. Wiley tried to “dumb down” the explanation of reperfusion injuries so most people could understand. He was unsucessfull in Mr. Gorelick’s case.

    Although I am not a fan of “alternative medicine,” the theraputic modality espoused by Dr. Wiley in his article is the same as I’ve seen most medical doctors use for minor orthopedic injuries for the last 30 years. It has worked for me for that 30 years also.

    Mr Gorlick should put his ignorance away and zip up.

    • Dr. Mark Wiley

      M.J., you are correct that I try to present information in an easy-to-understand way to readers. Some readers are well-educated in the health field, and like yourself, clarify some points and add new information to the topic under discussion. That is what we are about here, sharing and clarifying and this helping people understand what, why, and how to manager their wellness.

      Thank you for your feedback.

  • Martin Gorelick

    Oh, but I don’t represent myself as a doctor, nor do I give medical advice. “Dr.” Wiley does both.

    As far as white blood cells responding to any inflammatory process, or setting up the death spiral “Dr.” Wiley suggests, could you point me to something online that corroborates that? I’ll be glad to give you references to research that says nothing about white blood cells reacting to inflammation, or causing a death spiral. Like this, for example.

  • JR

    Some truth to it but i.m.h.o. a bit to over simplified. Medical advice is a dangerous field, the average person may not realize that he/she/it really has hurt them self and thus cause more damage following simplifies advice. There are many self limiting injures, but unless people really know what to look for they better seek professional help. And please do NOT look to the internet for advice without asking your Dr. for an opinion, there are more quacks on the internet posing as viable sources of information then there are actually Dr. on the net.

    Always remember, the internet is unregulated, EVERYONE from a high school dropout to the professional can buy a domain and put up official looking web pages. There are so many quacks and impostors on the net it would be dangerous like hell to take real medical advice from anyone… remember, if its free, chances are its a fraud. On the Net, anyone can be strong, smart, a professor, a doctor, an engineer with the pressing of a key on the keyboard without having to worry about consequences.

    • Martin Gorelick

      Well said, JR. I heartily concur.


    Looking for creative ways to vary exercise routines each day and allowing a day of rest for muscles to recover are just as important and making sure you exercise. Walking, isometics, tai chi, weights, stretch cords, breathing, floor exercises, and some types of martial arts, swimming are exercise to which inovation can readily be applied. If it hurts then change it around or come back to it when it won’t hurt, suppleness and tone are what you want to achieve and it takes time and dedication.

    • Dr. Mark Wiley

      You make a great statement here: “suppleness and tone are what you want to achieve and it takes time and dedication.” When the muscles are supple and toned and the body flexible and agile, the chances of injury are greatly reduced. Yet for those who are unfit or injured, getting from sore, tight and stiff to supple and toned… takes time and dedication. Nothing can be rushed. Thanks again for your contributions to our discussions, ONTIME.

      • http://donthaveone Beberoni

        I know what your saying. I have been athletic all my life, and always in shape and never hurt from excercising, other than the occasional straining of a hamstring or something, but never pulled it or anything. What has happened to me though in the last 3 years, as Im 52, was a sequence of events that has made me sore now, and Its from being out of shape. First I was moved into an office job where I now sit on my butt more than I ever have in my life. Second, I developed a sore back, that I found out was actually from a hockey related fall over 5 years ago, where my whole pelvice region is shifted forward and is pinching on a nerve that hurt so bad I couldnt even put on my shoes and socks. I never believed in chiropractors, until this happened, and a highly recommended one, got me straightened up in about 6 weeks, at 40 bucks a pop which isnt bad, and no stupid medicines to take, which I stay away from. But while this was going on, plus I quit smoking 2 years before, Im talking about a 30 pound instant weight gain. Now its got to come off, and it just from being out of shape, it hurts for the first time in my life, as the muscles have tightened, and Ive lost so much flexibility. But Ill get there. And to all of you reading this, who may be concerned about your weight, this re-enforces what Ive always said about gaining weight. You need to burn what you put in, and I got lazy and didnt do that, and now Ive got 30 pounds of fat to burn. Never having sat on my butt all day, I under estimated how much I burnt off during the day moving around for 10 hours a day at work. So if your gaining weight, chances are, in fact, it is a fact, that you arent active enough. And thats the ugly truth. And I am a victim of this myself now, but Im going to straighten it up before it gets any worse.

  • coal miner


    • http://naver sook young

      Psycological or physical? Thank you.

      Sook Young
      Wife of the Samurai

  • Betsy

    I had an aneurysm last year resulting in brain surgery in July. They went in through the groin resulting in a 5 and 1/2 hour surgery. Ever since, my neck has been stiff. It is getting better, but oh so slowly. The Dr. does not want me to go to a Chiropractor as he does not want additional trauma to my head. I have been to physical therapy and it is abut 50% better. I do the PT every day, but is there something else I can do? I do apply heat and even use a Shiatsu pillow massager. This stiff neck sometimes results in a migraine.
    I am looking for anything else that will help.

  • RugerLady

    Dr. Wiley; What would you advise for people who have had ongoing severe pain for years? I’m 73, suffer from hypothyroidism, had four vessel cardiac bypass surgery a little over a year ago. I have always had weight problems and gained even more after the surgery. I have also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia (whatever that means, as most doctors seem to have no idea). Just getting out of bed is a chore that takes at least Tylenol and black tea (can’t tolerate heavy pain meds or coffee due to stomach problems) to get moving. Just trying to do a little gardening or sweeping the driveway puts me down for several days. All of this has built up over a period of years due to stress, lack of sleep, etc. How do you break this cycle and try to get back to a semblance of normality, when it’s gone on so long and things are still so stressful? Medical doctors are not any help as all they do is push more pills which I won’t take. My mood only needs elevating when I look at my bank statement, and I just don’t want any glowing butterflies in my bedroom, thank you very much. lol. Thanks for an interesting article and any input.

  • Suma G Nathan

    You need a whole Protocol of Nutritional Healing, that includes Chinese, Ayurvedic, Rainforest, Herbals. A full regime of Detoxing & Cleansing & Repairing. You are on Toxic Overload, This can be addressed, as I am sure Dr. Wiley will agree! Very slowly of course!
    Takes time do undo all this damage! You can go to my Web Site if interested (no Selling) just inormation there!
    Suma G Nathan
    Certified Registered Holistic Nutritionist
    Certified Chinese Herbologist
    Holistic Health Journalist
    30 yrs professionally

    • RugerLady

      Suma G Nathan;

      Thank you so much for your reply. I checked out your website and will be back to read more. Right now I’m trying to find insurance, HMO or something that will help with alternative treatment. Conventional doctors sure don’t have any answers. Thank you again. Take care.

    • http://donthaveone Beberoni

      Tell me if you have heard about this one. A friend of mine was telling me that your feet are a filter like kidneys, and there are these people he goes to, that put your feet into this liquid, and all these toxins come out. Like if your a smoker it turns all black, and different colors depending on what toxins are in you. Have you heard of this.

  • cowboy

    i have sevee pain in hip joints when i walk about 400 ft, if i stop for 2 minutes the pain goes a way, have been diagnose for spinal stenosis or bulging disk, one doctor toldme i had very lttle pulse in left leg and sent me to cardogist to check for blockage, had opertion through groin but found no blockage,3 yrs ago i had a aorta anurism on my aorta and the cardiolgist repaired it at belly buton area with a stent going to both legs ,but aparently it was clear when he done the second opertion to check for blockage ,when i am at my office igenerally have no pain ,but when i go to the mall ,i can hardly walk around ,have any ideas?

  • Mark

    While I practice this myself (especially cold on acute injuries) there is a Chinese medicine treatment which calls for heat on an injury which is supposed to help flush damaged cells away and keep blood and energy flowing around the injury. The downside of course is that it hurts a lot more in the short term. But I have seen a number of first hand applications of this method which have had incredibly rapid healing times.

    While I don’t advocate this for a general treatment, it seems like something that may be worth investigating.


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