So you've stuck to a great fitness regimen, but you're noticing that your muscles or joints are swelling up when you're done. How do you fix that?
I have the problem of swollen muscles after working out. This problem got a lot worse after my battle with Lyme disease. I find that even going for a walk can make my muscles sore and my knees balloon angrily. This is a serious impediment to fitness, am I right? Despite the few things that have helped me deal with this problem, it persists.
Time to make a change, girls
I interviewed fitness professional Mason McManimon-Myers, who has a bachelor’s degree and upcoming certification in Athletic Training. He belongs to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) and is currently earning his doctoral degree in physical therapy.
Mason says, “I’ve done a lot of work in football, baseball, gymnastics, soccer, and other athletics. I usually see strains, sprains, bruises, spine injuries...you name it, we’ve seen it! It’s a common problem to have swelling or soreness after a hard workout because what’s scientifically happening is that you are tearing your muscle fibers. This can be worsened by any compromise in physical, emotional, or mental health.”
It’s a common problem to have swelling or soreness after a hard workout because what’s scientifically happening is that you are tearing your muscle fibers.
Identify the Cause of the Swelling and Correct It If You Can
“Common causes of swelling can include improper nutrition, bad form, high-impact or repetitive activities, overstretching or twisting a muscle, traumatic injuries,” Mason explains. “Retrace your steps in your workout. Think about what you felt at the time: if there was a pop or a snap, you might have an injury. If your position was wrong, your form might be causing swelling. Was this a one-time instance, or has it been getting worse over time?”
Common causes of swelling can include improper nutrition, bad form, high-impact or repetitive activities, overstretching or twisting a muscle, traumatic injuries.
Take a look at your fitness regimen, and try to pinpoint where you might have gone wrong. Correcting the areas of mistake will help you prevent as much swelling or soreness as possible.
Now that you know what might be causing your swollen muscles, let’s discuss some treatment options. “A handy little acronym to live by is RICE,” Mason said. “R: Rest. I: Ice. C: Compression. E: Elevate.”
“Basically, get off the swollen or injured area,” says Mason. “You don’t need to just sit on the couch, but you also don’t want to go through a full workout. Light activity will help move some of the swelling out and reduce soreness.” Personally, I’ve found stretching to be a great gentle exercise for a resting muscle or joint.
Light activity will help move some of the swelling out and reduce soreness.
I like to do floor stretches, particularly those types of stretches that ballet dancers use since swelling occurs in my legs. Check out this video of basic full-body stretching to get a jump-start on easy ways to keep that swollen area moving gently.
“Ice slows down cellular metabolism, which decreases damage to your muscle fibers,” explains Mason. “It also helps slow down fluids to the area, meaning it will lessen swelling.” Most athletes are familiar with applying ice packs or cold packs to a sore or swollen area because it's a quick, effective way to numb pain and control swelling. You can buy reusable Koo Care gel packs here - they also sell packs with straps that can wrap around your arms, legs, or waist. You can also wrap a plastic bag around frozen peas for a ready-made cold pack, right from your kitchen!
Soreness is often relieved more from gentle heat (like steam or hot water) than chilly ice packs, and heat also increases your body’s overall circulation.
If you’re dealing with more soreness than swelling in your muscles, other ideas you could try include Epsom salt baths or sauna visits. Soreness is often relieved more from gentle heat (like steam or hot water) than chilly ice packs, and heat also increases your body’s overall circulation. Adding Epsom salts to your warm bath will help your skin detox, too - plus it makes your calming bath feel like a visit to the spa.
“You can use wraps or compression sleeves to help manage chronic swelling,” Mason explains. “This allows actual mechanical pressure to be placed on the swollen area to improve the reuptake of fluid by the body’s systems.” In layman’s terms, since swelling is caused by excess fluid, putting gentle pressure all around a swollen area will help your body reabsorb it and shrink the swelling.
Putting gentle pressure all around a swollen area will help your body reabsorb it and shrink the swelling.
If you want to try home-wraps, make sure to take a class or have a professional teach you how. If you're going to go green, try this reusable compression tape made in the USA! You can also buy ready-made braces at Walgreens or your local sports store. Another way to help swollen muscles via compression is lymphatic massage (a Brazilian beauty secret!), which uses pressure through specific massages to help the lymph system lessen inflammation. Check out this video for a quick how-to!
“Use gravity to your advantage,” says Mason. “If your arm or shoulder is swollen, try propping it on a tabletop while you sit on the floor.” After I’m done with a workout session, I like to lie on the floor for five minutes with my feet resting high on a wall. This helps the extra fluid get pulled away from the area of swelling and reduces the soreness.
“It’s a little trickier with your back or neck, which are hard to elevate,” Mason says. “In that case, I would suggest stretching or foam rolling, which pushes fluid away from the swelling by motion instead of elevation.” Watch this video for a beginner’s guide to foam rolling.
“Overall, for any of these, if there’s any discomfort and pain,” Mason says, “Stop what you’re doing and seek some medical help - not from the Internet!” A licensed Athletic Trainer, Physical Therapist, or Medical Doctor are the professionals you’ll want to visit if you suspect any serious condition or injury, such as a torn muscle, torn ligament or tendon, or cracked bone. Trying to treat those things on your own will only make the injury worse.
I don’t know about you, but I feel armed and ready to tackle those workouts again. Happy fitness, ladies!
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