The higher a subject’s anxiety, the more intense their subsequent muscle soreness

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Muscle soreness is in you head — at least partly:

The usual explanation of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is something like this: when you do exercise that’s unfamiliar or harder than usual, you inflict microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Over the next 24 to 48 hours, a cycle of inflammation and repair leads to soreness that can persist for several days. But it has long been clear that this explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, if you exercise your right leg only, your left leg will be less likely to get sore after future workouts, which suggests that the perception of soreness isn’t just about what’s happening in your muscle fibers.

In this spirit, an ACSM presentation from a team led by Einat Kodesh of the University of Haifa in Israel explores the potential role of mental traits in post-exercise soreness. They had 32 volunteers complete a series of psychological questionnaires and pain tests, then perform an exercise designed to induce DOMS. A day later, another questionnaire found that 17 of the subjects had developed DOMS, while 15 hadn’t.

Sure enough, there were some notable psychological differences between those who did and didn’t get sore. The DOMS sufferers had reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress before any exercise took place. The higher a subject’s anxiety, the more intense their subsequent muscle soreness was likely to be. Less surprisingly, the pre-exercise pain tests, which basically involved poking the subjects with a blunt needle to see how much pressure it took to make them hurt, also successfully predicted who was likely to develop DOMS.

The message here isn’t that pain and soreness are all in your head, or that admitting you feel sore is a sign of weakness. But it is a reminder that recovery is a murkier and less objective concept that we like to think. When we try to understand athletes’ obsession with things like ice baths, if we focus only on what’s happening in the muscle fibers, then we’re not necessarily seeing the whole picture.


  1. Nels says:

    I suppose these folks consider Alzheimers a psychological problem too.

    Lyme disease, Borrellia, can cause both mental problems, and arthritis. As can most spirochetes. Depression can be a leading symptom of such an infection, or only.

    See Amy Tan’s story of her fight with depression/Lyme.

  2. Neovictorian says:

    Just started reading this yesterday. Fascinating. Seems like it will actually have some “actionable advice” as well.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Left leg, right leg, brain. What’s the link? The bloodstream.

    How did their arms feel? Their backs?

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