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Ask the Trainer: "How can I tell the difference between low back pain and normal low back muscle soreness?"

Aug 20, 2018

Christian Agudelo, ACSM - CPT

Knowing the differences between low back pain and typical muscle soreness is something everyone needs to be aware of, especially when starting a workout routine. Typically the symptoms are obvious for both, however many people seem to lean towards pain because they don’t truly understand the difference. Low back pain is usually long lasting and in some cases chronic. Sharp and ache pain and discomfort along with lack of mobility is associated with low back pain. Low back pain is essentially damage to muscles, tendons and ligaments in the lower spine area. Muscle soreness on the other hand is more of a dull, tight and ache type of pain. Usually feels tender for awhile and typically lasts a few days. With more activity the pain should minimize and be gone quickly unlike low back pain which can linger for a very long time.

Earvin Bahena, NSCA - CSCS

It is extremely important to be able to tell the difference between lower back pain and muscle soreness. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced workout guru, back pain is not something you want to deal with. Here are some ways to tell the difference between the two.

Muscle Soreness: After a workout you will feel soreness anywhere from 24-72 hours after, this is called DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. During this time your muscles will be tender to the touch, achy and tight at rest or during exercise. Constant moving after the soreness hits and a good active recovery will ease the soreness away.

Lower Back Pain: This is the opposite of soreness, instead of “feeling it” after the workout, many times you will feel the pain during an exercise or about 24 hours after. Instead of a tight, achy feeling you’ll feel a sharp pain in the lower back area. Without treatment the pain will continue to linger and that is not something you want to happen.

Spencer O'Neil, NASM- CPT

This is a frequently asked question that I often receive from many of my clients. Certain movements are used to strengthen the lower back and or trunk that often result in muscle soreness. After strenuous exercise it is common for our muscles to be tender to the touch or even flare up with specific movements. For this reason it is easy for many to conflate optimal muscle soreness for general back pain. When trying to differentiate between the two I generally ask if the client can pinpoint the pain and physically touch it. If they can this usually means its typical muscle soreness and should usually alleviate in a few days. If it is constant discomfort similar to a dull ache or any radiating nerve pain that the client can’t seem to alleviate then it’s time to take a break. If the sharp pain lingers for longer than a week, seek a medical professional.


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