We’ve all been there, either got carried away with a big lifting session, or finished a big hero WOD like Murph, and woken up the next day with some serious post-workout soreness. At this point you may be wondering, does ibuprofen help with sore muscles from working out? Before you start popping painkillers, let’s take a look at the effects these nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs might have on your gains and even your health.
What exactly is Ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen is a commonly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID, for short), which can be taken both orally and topically. It is an over-the-counter painkiller, often used as pain relief for aches and pains such as backache, toothache, sprains or strains, period pain, or arthritis. Ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory and reduces swelling and inflammation in the body. Other NSAIDs include pain relief treatments such as Naproxen, Aspirin, Voltaren gel, and diclofenac.
Ibuprofen works by reducing the ability of your body to create prostaglandins, chemicals that generate a pain and inflammation response.
Ibuprofen and delayed onset muscle soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness – or DOMS, is the pain you feel in your muscles a day or two (or even 3 or 4 if you really went for it) after a training session.
Typically, people who are strength training regularly will not experience DOMS as significantly as someone who is brand new to training. Some things that may increase DOMS include changing up your exercise program, doing a particularly intense workout (I’m looking at you, doing your 10 sets of 10 german volume training for lat pulldowns straight after Murph), long endurance activity such as a marathon, or coming back from a training break. Your muscles hurt because you have broken them down during your session, causing micro tears in the muscle tissue, and inflammation.
You may feel sore, stiff, and tight, experience decreased range of motion in joints, and – in extreme cases, things like pulling your car’s handbrake up, and getting on and off the loo suddenly become insurmountable tasks. Taking ibuprofen has been shown to help reduce pain from DOMS due to its anti-inflammatory properties, however, the relief is temporary and it does not help restore range of motion or actual muscle recovery.
Effects of NSAIDs on muscle growth
There is some research to indicate that NSAID use could interfere with muscle growth.
When we exercise, we cause an inflammatory response in our muscles which triggers the adaptations we want in terms of growth, strength, and fitness. So logic does follow that maybe an anti-inflammatory could hinder this process.
Researchers found that while high doses of ibuprofen interfere with protein synthesis (use of amino acids to build and repair muscles), a moderate dose of 400g per day did not affect muscle growth.
It’s gonna get a bit sciencey now. The body uses specific cells called satellite cells for muscular repair and hypertrophy. These cells increase in number and activity when you lift weights regularly, and research does show that NSAID use does negatively affect satellite cell activity, meaning excessive use of ibuprofen or similar medications could negatively affect muscle growth.
So should we avoid ibuprofen?
No. Taking NSAIDS in small/moderate doses now and then are perfectly safe to utilize and won’t have a hugely detrimental effect on muscle gain, but you shouldn’t be popping ibuprofen like candy after every workout – save it for after the really big training sessions!
Hypertrophy aside, endurance athletes may benefit from taking anti-inflammatories after a long event, and they can still be used for pain management following an injury.
If you are taking other medications, you should check with your doctor before taking any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as there could be adverse effects or negative interactions.
Who shouldn’t take ibuprofen?
Most people can take ibuprofen without issue. You should avoid ibuprofen if you have ever had an allergic reaction to aspirin or any other NSAID.
If you are pregnant you should avoid ibuprofen unless prescribed by your doctor. Ibuprofen could affect the health of your baby.
If you have kidney disease or high blood pressure, you should avoid ibuprofen.
Risks of long-term NSAID use for post-workout soreness
Long term use of pain medication is never a good idea unless under the guidance of a medical professional, and some side effects can include:
- Hearing loss.
- Damage to liver and impaired kidney function.
- Bleeding in the bowels and stomach.
- Increased heart attack risk.
So what should my go to recovery protocols be?
Aside from NSAIDs, there are plenty of other methods you can and should use to reduce muscle soreness and repair muscle damage caused by exercise.
While you may feel like moving sore muscles is the last thing you want to do, increasing blood flow helps to supply the muscle with fresh nutrients and oxygen and remove waste product build-up, which helps reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery.
I’m not saying go and do your next round of German volume training, but do some mobility work and light stretching, go for a walk, or hit the gym for a few light sets of resistance exercises.
If you have an actual injury, physical therapy is great for rehabilitation and a good physical therapist will provide you with exercises to encourage blood flow and target particular tissues.
But don’t forget the electrolytes.
Being properly hydrated will help with recovery, water delivers nutrients to cells and helps flush out waste products, and can help relieve muscle soreness and tension (there’s a reason you’re more prone to cramping if you’re dehydrated!). Putting a pinch of sea or Himalayan salt and a pinch of lo-salt in your water will help replenish important electrolytes, particularly after sweating out a bunch of salt during an intense gym session.
Use cold therapy
Yes…you know what I’m talking about…the dreaded ice bath! Cold therapy can help remove lactic acid, reduce inflammation, and reduce perceived muscle soreness. If you aren’t into the cold, try alternating hot and cold therapies for a marginally more pleasurable experience.
If you really can’t do the cold thing, try hitting the sauna instead to relax muscles and increase blood flow.
Make good food choices
After your workout, hit your protein, eat plenty of fruit and veg to give your body the nutrients it needs to rebuild, and avoid too much sugar, alcohol or caffeine as these can all impact negatively on recovery and could even increase inflammation.
Get a sports massage
Massage can help relieve muscle tension, reduce muscle soreness and pain after exercise, and improve blood flow and waste removal to/from muscles, speeding up recovery and pain relief.
To wrap up, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking ibuprofen or other non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to treat sore muscles, however, they shouldn’t be a daily staple and you should be aware they could negatively impact your training results. If you are regularly in so much pain from exercise that you are reaching for painkillers, you should look at optimizing your recovery in other areas, or reducing your training intensity.
Ismana is a true clichéd ‘gym bunny’ and loves crossfit and powerlifting, which enable her to enjoy an active and adventurous lifestyle – the body will never be an obstacle before the mind is! Ismana loves to share her skills and knowledge with others, and is an experienced strength and performance coach, with a strong belief in keeping things simple when it comes to training.