Understanding Muscle Pain in Yoga Practice

Muscles feel sore from yoga practice for a variety of reasons and it is important to distinguish between the causes of the pain experienced because although muscle pain is just, well, painful, different causes need different treatments. Muscle pain usually has these causes:

  • muscle injuries
  • strenuous exercise (DOMS)
  • overtraining
  • muscle imbalance

Pain from injuries like muscle strains and tears is felt immediately and is usually confirmed by bruising and swelling: a small amount of internal bleeding happens when a muscle tears although an acute strain may not have bruising but is a similar injury. A torn or strained muscle tends to go into spasm to protect itself from further damage and stays contracted during and after the healing process. A damaged muscle often feels hard and painful if it is touched. Muscle tears take about 3 weeks to heal and total rest of the affected muscle is important – continuing to exercise a torn muscle will cause muscle imbalances to develop – it is important to consult a physiotherapist if a torn muscle is suspected.

Muscle tears happen in yoga from forcing stretches or stretching deeply without warming up properly. Patience, massage and gentle heated yoga are helpful for stretching muscles back to a normal length after the tear has healed.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) used to be thought of as a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, but now is mostly considered to be caused by microtrauma: exercise that takes a muscle beyond its endurance levels makes microscopic tears in muscle fibres and is a natural process that enables muscles to grow and adapt to greater workloads. DOMS usually starts within 24 hours of demanding exercise and goes away naturally after a few days. Muscles are sore to touch but feel softer or a little stringy compared to muscles in spasm from injury. Patience, gentle exercise and mild stretching will help DOMS.

This kind of pain occurs when people first start yoga or when they try an unfamiliar or strenuous yoga practice.

Chronic pain and stiffness of muscles occurs when people regularly work their bodies hard and don’t rest enough in between. Besides muscle pain, other signs of overtraining are

  • Disturbed sleeping patterns
  • Increased susceptibility to viral infections
  • Emotional irritability and mental fatigue
  • Some women stop menstruating if their body-fat ratio falls below a certain level and this has serious long term health consequences for women. I will look at this separately.

Overtraining happens when people practise Ashtanga and other strenuous forms of yoga more frequently than their bodies can handle. The only cure for overtraining is complete rest for a few weeks and taking it easier thereafter, as well as an honest assessment of the reasons for pushing so hard in the first place. Using Yoga in this way is an avoidance of real life issues, not a path to inner growth

Pain from muscle imbalance is complex to diagnose and resolve and needs professional assessment and treatment. Muscles are chronically tight, feel hard and sore, and may be especially painful at their attachment points to the joint. Joint pain is common with muscle imbalances and active, healthy people who experience joint pain without a previous history of joint injury should consider muscle imbalance as the most likely cause of their pain, although joint injury is in itself a cause of muscle imbalance. Pain at joints often improves dramatically if the muscle function at a particular joint is corrected with rehabilitation exercise. Pain from muscle imbalance usually starts as a nagging ache with no particular cause but if it is misdiagnosed or not treated develops into chronic pain and discomfort. Massage tends to relieve pain temporarily, and stretching is painful. Both massage and stretching can be damaging to muscles if muscle imbalance is the problem. The reasons why will be explained in more detail in the next posting.

Muscle imbalances can be caused in yoga by repetitive sequences, or by sequences that focus only on particular parts of the body. Continuing to perform yoga stretches that are painful will damage muscles, ligaments and joints. It’s very important to evaluate a practice and change it as necessary or treatment will be useless: the same problems return very soon

Reading sources:
Kinakin, 2004, Optimal Muscle Training
Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance

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