We are all prone to sore, stiff muscles — particularly now it’s colder, as low temperatures cause muscles to lose heat and contract, which makes them prone to injury as they move.
Exercise can cause tiny injuries in your muscle fibres, which will cause inflammation and make them feel sore a day later.
‘Muscular ache and stiffness after exercise that disappears after a week shows your muscles are working and getting stronger,’ says Sammy Margo, a London physiotherapist.
So what can you do to ease the pain in the meantime?
We asked Sammy to assess some products said to help; we then rated them.
WESTLAB RECOVER BATHING SALTS
£7.99 for 1kg, westlabsalts.co.uk
CLAIM: A blend of magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts), white willow bark extract, arnica and essential oils. Add two to three handfuls to a warm bath to soothe tired, aching muscles.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘An Epsom salts bath has been used to soothe sore muscles for centuries. The idea is that a warm soak in this will help your body absorb magnesium and sulphates needed for relaxed muscles and healthy joints. However, there’s no evidence to show Epsom salts can soothe away pain.
White willow bark has been found to reduce back pain and arnica is used as a herbal treatment for bruises and inflammation — but again, there is no evidence to show these ingredients will be helpful in a bath.’
SALONPAS PAIN RELIEF PATCH
CLAIM: ‘For pain relief of muscle and joint strains, sprains, backache and bruises,’ these are coated with menthol — said to work as a topical painkiller — and methyl salicylate, a chemical similar to aspirin that helps reduce inflammation.
Apply one of these patches over painful muscles or joints; the ingredients are said to absorb through the skin to ease discomfort for eight to 12 hours.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘These are a handy way to soothe everyday neck, shoulder and back pain caused by muscle strains. The proven painkilling and anti-inflammatory ingredients release slowly on to the site of soreness for up to 12 hours.
‘They have a strong menthol smell, so people may prefer to use them overnight. But they should only be used with the advice of a GP or pharmacist if you are taking medication, as the active ingredients could interact with other treatments.’
£5.26 for five plasters, boots.com
£29.99 for 30 capsules, hollandandbarrett.com
CLAIM: An extract from French maritime pine bark ‘containing proanthocyanidins (plant pigments with antioxidant properties), organic acids and other biologically active components’.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that recreational athletes taking a daily supplement of 100-150g of pycnogenol reported reduced muscle pain and cramping because of its ability to improve blood flow to the muscles and control free radical damage.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘There is some research to suggest a daily pycnogenol supplement may help to protect muscle fibres from the rise in free radicals that can occur immediately after exercise.
‘However, more studies are needed to prove this supplement can reduce muscle pain and cramping.’
BEENAX PEANUT MASSAGE BALL
CLAIM: A peanut-shaped ball made of rubber ‘specifically designed to release tight and uncomfortable muscles’.
Place the ball on a firm surface and roll your hand, foot, back, shoulder, neck, leg or arm over it to ‘massage’ and relax tight, painful muscles.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘I have been recommending massage balls to my clients for years but this double ball is new to me — and I’m impressed. The peanut shape means it is more stable than single massage balls, which have a tendency to roll about when you lean or lie on them.
‘Rolling sore muscles over this ball can help to relax any muscle contraction and boost blood and lymphatic circulation — helping damaged muscles heal more efficiently.
‘You’ll need a basic degree of flexibility and strength to be able to use it — but if you’re relatively fit, it’s a great, affordable DIY massage tool to release tight muscles and knots.’
DEEP FREEZE PAIN RELIEF GLIDE-ON GEL
£4.99 for 50ml, superdrug.com
CLAIM: The active ingredient in this roll-on gel, levomenthol, is a compound taken from mint that has a cooling effect which is said to cause capillaries in the skin to constrict, reducing circulation and inflammation. The cold sensation may also dampen pain signals from the site being sent to the brain, helping to ease the discomfort of minor aches and strains for up to an hour after application.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Applying something cold to sore muscles and joints — particularly in the first 36 hours after injury — will help to reduce inflammation and pain. This is a handy, portable product for treating minor strains and sprains, and shooting muscle and joint pains.
‘If you apply a generous layer, it cools the skin just as well as a bag of frozen peas.’
THERAGUN LIV MASSAGER
CLAIM: A hand-held electrical massage ‘gun’ designed to deliver a rapid, percussive massage to loosen tight muscles, soothe away muscle spasms and boost circulation. Rechargeable — each charge gives about 45 minutes’ use — it is ideal for athletes and keen exercisers. To use, run the gun lightly over the affected area. Comes with two massage heads: one firm, one soft.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Percussive massage techniques — (a series of rapid, sharp ‘strikes’) — have been used for years to soothe tight muscles. This gadget gives a very firm and controlled deep-tissue massage that will help muscle fibres relax and will definitely help ease aches and pains.
‘It’s great for fleshy areas and can be used daily for between 30 seconds and 30 minutes at a time. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone frail or with osteoporosis, though.’
TANSOZER GUA SHA SCRAPING MASSAGE TOOL
CLAIM: The edge of this smooth, stainless steel tool is designed to be drawn firmly over the skin using long, continuous strokes — an ancient Chinese ‘ skin-scraping’ technique called Gua Sha that helps to relax tight, painful muscles and reduce inflammation.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘There is no scientific proof that Gua Sha works — but you can certainly use this tool to perform a very efficient self- massage. Drawing the flat edge firmly along the skin in long strokes — working towards the heart — will help to stimulate circulation and reduce fluid retention, boosting the flow of nutrients around tight muscles and helping to speed up recovery of the muscle tissues.
‘The shape is ideal for working around awkward areas such as the elbows, knees and hands.’
SIS REGO CHERRY JUICE
£1.75 for 30g sachet, scienceinsport.com
CLAIM: Research links cherry juice — rich in anthocyanins, flavonoids and melatonin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — to reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness, reduced inflammation and improved sleep. Mix a sachet in cold water and drink after exercise for two to three days to promote muscle recovery.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘There’s no doubt this type of cherry juice offers high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, but most of the research into its muscle-soothing effects appears to have been funded by cherry producers.
‘While these sachets offer a quick and easy way to ingest protective antioxidants — which, in theory, will help with muscle recovery — more research is needed to prove conclusively that they work. It’s quite expensive, too.’
GOSEAR ELECTRONIC ‘ACUPUNCTURE’ PEN
CLAIM: A battery-operated, pen-like device that through its metal tip emits an electrical current said to relieve muscle and joint pain. Apply a thin layer of the gel that comes with it to the area to be treated, then turn the pen on and press it gently around the sore joint or muscle.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘I didn’t expect much from this, but it gives off a surprisingly powerful electrical charge. It works like a pinpoint TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, sending tiny electrical pulses into the skin which can help distract from, and reduce, the pain signals going to the brain.
‘The electrical signals may also trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Not everyone will find this works for them — if it does, it could be handy for pain in bony areas such as the knees, ankles, feet and hands.’