You have a great workout at the gym or you went for an extra long hike or just pushed yourself more than usual, you usually encounter delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You usually begin to feel it the next day after exercise but the peak is usually the 3rd day. The typical characteristics of DOMS is physical pain and discomfort, reduced range of motion, decreased muscle strength and just that overall feeling of every little movement you make is PAINFUL!
There were a number of study methods conducted, one using heat and the other using cold therapy. The 5 different groups either used, no treatment, cold packs immediately after, cold packs 24 hours after, heat wraps immediately after or heat wraps 24 hours after. The study group performed 3 rounds of squats to produce DOMS. Each set lasted about 5 minutes with a squat every 3 seconds. Soreness was assessed before exercise and 1, 2, and 3 days post exercise.
The group that received no therapy after the squats showed a 23.8% drop in muscular strength the day after exercise. The immediate heat and cold groups showed significantly smaller drop of 4.5%. When therapy was applied 24 hours after exercise, the cold therapy did a bit better than heat.Heat and cold applied immediately after exercise did the best in lessening the loss of muscle myoglobin, the immediate-heat group was the most improvement in myoglobin.
Overall the research showed that both immediate and 24 hour cold and heat help to prevent muscle soreness. For reducing pain cold therapy performed better.
The takeaway message is it is best to apply cold packs immediately or 24 hours after exercise to the target area for 20 minutes. So make sure you have ice packs in the fridge.
Reference: Petrofsky, J.S., et al. 2015 Cold Vs Heat after exercise – Is there a clear winner for muscle soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29 (11) 3245-52.