Joint Pain After Exercise: When Should You Worry?

Ken Knickerbocker
Image via Main Line Health.

By Main Line Health

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are turning to exercise as a way to deal with stress, anxiety, and cabin fever — and that’s a good thing! Regular exercise is good for your physical health, but it can help manage your mental health, too, and that’s something we could all use during a particularly stressful time.

Whether you’re just getting back into exercise or you’ve recently started trying new workout and pushing yourself harder, you may start to notice the physical side effects of this change in routine. If you’ve started to notice joint pain after you exercise, is it safe to continue? It depends, said Dr. David N. Vegari, an orthopaedic surgeon at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health.

“In order to meet your health and workout goals, you’ll have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and work hard,” he said. “A certain degree of discomfort is normal, but when it starts to interfere with your ability to work out or complete daily activities, that is a cause for concern.”

When joint pain after exercise is normal

If you’ve recently challenged your body with a new or a more intense workout, it’s normal to feel mild soreness in the affected areas. This is also true if you’ve recently returned to exercise after a hiatus.

It’s normal for your body to respond this way; soreness is the way your body responds to a challenge. In most cases, this soreness or fatigue will resolve after a day or two.

If you’ve been working out more intensely than usual for several days — think: streaming a new workout, lifting heavier weights, or adding some sprinting intervals into your runs — you might experience another kind of soreness called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It often lasts longer than acute soreness, about three to five days, but doesn’t mean you need to stop exercise altogether.

Instead, try at-home remedies. “Proper hydration, massage, rest, and foam rolling are all ways to help ease the symptoms of DOMS,” said Dr. Vegari. You may also want to try light, low-impact exercise like taking a walk or biking.

When joint pain after exercise is cause for concern

But what if your pain is more severe? So severe that it stops you in your tracks — literally? That’s a sign you should stop your workout, said Dr. Vegari.

“Pain that strikes you during your workout or prevents you from completing it is a sign that something is wrong,” he said. “Ignoring those signs can mean more pain and, potentially, long-term injury.”

Stop your workout right away if you feel a sharp, stabbing feeling or otherwise experience any pain that prohibits you from completing your workout or the activities of daily living.

Additionally, look for visible signs that something is wrong: Is your joint red, swollen, or warm to touch?

These pains may be a sign of overuse, a muscle strain or sprain, or something else. If you do experience pain like this, or if something just doesn’t feel right, put a hold on your exercise routine until you’re cleared by your healthcare provider to return.

If you’re experiencing joint pain after exercise, there are several surgical and non-surgical options available for treatment. Your provider may recommend steroids, medication, physical therapy, or a combination of these options as a first step to treating your pain. But, if pain persists or these options don’t provide long-term relief, joint replacement may be an option for you.

Main Line Health offers free hip and knee pain seminars, available via webinar, to learn more about your options for joint pain treatment options.

Preventing joint pain after exercise

“It’s just as important to schedule rest days for your body as it is to challenge it,” said Dr. Vegari. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be inactive; you can pursue gentler exercise options like walking or gentle yoga.”

Adding variety to your workout can help, too. If you’re accustomed to strength training, try cardio exercise a few days per week. If you’re dedicated to pounding the pavement on morning runs, try to switch out one day of cardio for some exercises at home using your own body weight like planks or squats. This prevents one area of your body from suffering from overuse.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1-866-CALL-MLH (225-5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.

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