There’s soreness, and then there’s pain. It’s important to not confuse the two, say physical therapists. 

To active people in general and athletes at all levels, the inability to recognize the differences between muscle soreness and pain can mean pushing your body – your muscles and joints – to the point of injury. It’s the difference between healthy progress and unnecessary, long-term risk. 

“Post-workout soreness can start anywhere from later that day until a few days after the workout … with a peak usually around the 36-hour mark,” said Mike Reinold, physical therapist for the Boston Red Sox. “If the soreness lasts longer than the normal couple of days or so, or has an impact on how you function, it is probably some sort of injury.” 

And ignoring it can do long-term damage to your body. 

In contrast, soreness – often referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – is a side effect of the repair process that follows the microscopic muscle damage from a typical, rigorous workout. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, activities known to cause DOMS includes strength training (of course), walking down hills, jogging, step aerobics and jumping.  

So how can you tell soreness from pain? The answer can be a simple as listening to your body. 

Here are some of the signs that you’re experiencing pain – not simply soreness — and should shut it down and seek the advice of a physician or physical therapist, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA): 

Pain is Sharp: Sharp, intense pain that you experience when exercising and at rest can be classified as pain. In contrast, sore muscles tend to feel tight and achy when at rest. During exercise, sore muscles will feel “burning” and fatigued. But if the burning later turns to swelling and inflammation, see a physical therapist or personal physician. 

Pain in the Joints: Soreness is a muscular thing. Though muscle discomfort can also cross the line into pain, discomfort in the joints is less ambiguous. If, say, getting up from a chair or walking up the stairs becomes a struggle, it may be time to seek professional advice. 

Warm-Up Discomfort: If the discomfort you feel doesn’t go away after you’ve warmed up for your workout or event, you’ve potentially crossed the line into pain. General soreness should improve through use, so if discomfort lingers on without improvement, you’re likely dealing with pain. 

R.I.C.E. Fails: If soreness persists and seems to linger, apply R.I.C.E., a popular acronym that takes you through the steps of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Then re-evaluate the way you feel. If the hurt doesn’t improve or subside, you may be experiencing pain. 

If you’re experiencing pain, or if you’re just not sure, seeking the advice of a medical expert such as a physical therapist can be your best option.  

“In the unfortunate situation when exercise leads to an injury, your physical therapist will assist in your recovery in many ways,” states the APTA. “They will help with initial pain management, identify and address all factors that may have contributed to your injury to prevent further problems, and provide specific recommendations regarding reintegration into exercise, as appropriate.”