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Post-exercise muscle recovery often includes water retention.
After a hard workout, your expectations for a fitter version of yourself begin to soar. But when you step on the scale a day or two later, you may be dismayed to find you've gained a few pounds. Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is a condition resulting from intense exercise that can cause swelling and water retention in your muscles. In most cases, it goes away after a few days. But in some instances, swollen muscles can be a sign of a life-threatening condition.
Temporary muscle swelling and water retention are common after an intense workout.
Break It Down
Expect a Delay
Symptoms of DOMS include temporary loss of strength, muscle pain, tenderness and stiffness. Exercise scientist Len Kravitz, Ph.D., attributes some of the muscle pain and stiffness to an inflammatory response to muscle membrane damage, a part of the healing process that includes swelling. According to Kravitz, pain and tenderness usually peak within one to three days after exercise and subside within seven days. Stiffness and swelling usually peak three to four days after exercise, resolving completely within 10 days.
Know the Warning Signs
In extreme cases, DOMS can be a symptom of a serious condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, commonly called rhabdo, characterized by debilitating muscle pain, weakness and swelling. Rhabdo occurs when muscle membranes are so damaged that the contents of muscle cells leak out and circulate in your bloodstream, upsetting your body chemistry. Potassium and calcium both play an important role in muscle contraction, but when excessive amounts leak into your bloodstream, they can interfere with your heart rhythms. Excessive myoglobin, a muscle protein, can damage your kidneys and lead to kidney failure. Evidence of myoglobin leakage is dark brown urine.
Give it Time
In an effort to reduce the symptoms of DOMS, many interventions are used, including over-the-counter pain medications, nutritional supplements, and massage. A 2015 study published in the "Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies" found therapeutic massage to reduce symptoms of pain and swelling of DOMS in ultramarathoners. According to Kravitz, pain medications and supplements do little to alleviate DOMS, but pre-exercise warm-up appears to mitigate the onset and severity of DOMS. Normal DOMS goes away over time. If you have persistent debilitating pain and swelling accompanied by dark brown urine, seek immediate medical intervention. Rhabdo can be life-threatening if left untreated.
No matter how great you feel during and immediately after your workout, muscle pain, stiffness and swelling can show up a day or two afterward. According to Kenney, et al, authors of "Physiology of Sport and Exercise, Fifth Edition," delayed onset muscle soreness is categorized as a type I muscle strain ranging from mild stiffness to debilitating pain. DOMS is induced by micro-tears in the muscle membrane during eccentric muscle contraction, the tension produced in your muscles as they lengthen against the force of gravity.
While painful, damage to muscle cells ultimately stimulates an increase in protein turnover, leading to muscle growth and strength gains. In addition to injury to the muscle tissue, the authors point to edema, an accumulation of fluids in the muscle compartment both within and surrounding cells, and that increases pressure and activates pain receptors. The fluid accumulation could be the result of injury, or could occur independently of injury.