By Bianca Teo

If you have spent the days leading up to the Lunar New Year in a spring cleaning frenzy or if you have started on an exercise routine to try to counter the calories piled on because of all the pineapple tarts, then chances are, you may experience some body aches and muscle soreness.

Don’t worry, that’s normal! Muscle soreness is our body’s response to stop us from overexerting our bodies as it may lead to injuries. The soreness often peaks a day or two after your spring cleaning or workout. Because of the delay, it is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), usually lasting for 24 to 48 hours.

There is a wealth of information online on relief for those aching muscles we never knew we had. But are they effective? We speak to Tracy Ong, a physiotherapist with SGH to find out.

Pain hack 1: Apply an ice pack on the sore muscles
Truth: No, this does not work in relieving muscle soreness.
Explanation: There is no evidence to show that an ice pack is effective in reducing muscle soreness. Although some studies have shown that cold water immersion enhances the recovery process for athletes who are experiencing muscle soreness, this involves immersing the full body into cold water, right after the exercise for about 15 minutes and for a total of 7 treatments. This is not recommended as few people have such high cold tolerance.  
However, ice does help to reduce inflammation and creates a numbing effect. It is effective for treating acute injuries, such as sprains and strains. Seek professional advice if unsure.

Pain hack 2: Apply a heat pack to the sore muscles
Truth: Yes, this works in relieving muscles soreness but it is only for temporary relief.
Explanation: Heat helps dilate blood vessels, increasing the blood circulation to relax sore muscles. The effect is greater when it’s combined with active recovery as a heat pack only  provides temporary relief. Do not use heat packs on acute injuries eg. sprained ankle as it can worsen the inflammation

Microwave a wheat bag (fabric bag filled with wheat grain) or heat gel pack (readily available in pharmacies) as specified by the manufacturer’s instructions and apply it to your sore muscles for 15 minutes. Be careful that overheating can cause burns, so do have some layers of towel wrapped around the heat pack before placing it on your skin. If you are less sensitive to heat, refrain from using heat packs. Seek professional advice if unsure.

Pain hack 3: Active recovery through light exercise
Truth: Yes, active recovery is the most effective way to alleviate pain due to muscle soreness.
Explanation: Research has found that doing some light exercise during the recovery phase will stimulate blood flow to the muscles, reduce both the pain and duration of the muscle soreness.

Go for a gentle yoga class, slow walk or foam rolling to relieve the muscles soreness.

Pain hack 4: Foam rolling or Tennis ball/Baseball massage
Truth: Yes, foam rolling works in relieving muscles soreness.
Explanation: Foam rolling is the use of a foam roller (an exercise device used for massage and fitness which is usually long and cylindrical) to apply gentle pressure to the tight muscles. It is a form of myofascial release which helps to release tension in between the muscles and connective tissues, reducing the muscle soreness and improve the flexibility of the joints.
When we exercise or overuse a certain muscle, the muscle contracts and tightens up. If there’s any remaining tension in the muscle, one will experience stiffness and tightness in that muscle. Foam rolling releases the tension and helps to stretch the muscle, loosening the knots.
Be careful when you are doing foam rolling as it requires some amount of body strength and balancing skills. It’s not recommended for the elderly and those who are lacking in balancing skills.
The tennis ball/baseball massage works on the same principle as foam rolling but the application is more localised as the surface area is smaller compared to a foam roller. 

Pain hack 5: Essential oil massage
Truth: There is not much research on the effectiveness of essential oil in relieving muscle aches.  But gentle massages can provide psychological benefits and temporary effects in reducing muscle tension in sore muscles.

So how can we get rid of common muscle aches?
Tracy taught us some self-help techniques to get rid of common muscle aches using a spiky massage ball (or tennis ball/baseball) and foam roller. These are readily available in sporting goods stores.  If you feel any sharp pain when doing these exercises, stop and consult a physiotherapist.

Upper back or shoulder ache
Place the spiky massage ball next to the spine on your shoulder. Find the sore spot, apply pressure by leaning your body weight onto the ball against the wall for 15 to 90 seconds.

Lower back ache
Place the baseball on the sore spot in your lower back next to your spine. Apply pressure by leaning your body weight onto the ball against the wall for 15 to 90 seconds. You can also roll the ball up and down the side of the spine on the muscular region by doing mini squats against the wall. 
If your household chores/spring cleaning involves a lot of forward bending from your lower back, perform curve reversal by placing your hands on your waist and leaning backwards gently.

Neck ache
Place your left hand on the top of your head and slowly tilt your head to the left, bringing your ear closer to the shoulder. Apply gentle pressure with your left hand to stretch the neck muscle on the right for 30 seconds. Ensure your neck is not rotated by facing forward. Repeat the stretch on the other side.

Chest and upper arm ache
Lie on the foam roller or a pillow and spread out your arms to the side.  Do these while keeping your neck straight. You should feel the stretch in the chest.

 How to avoid common muscle aches?
Tracy shares some tips on how to avoid common muscle aches:

  • Start your workout gradually if you have not been exercising in a long while.
  • If you are spring cleaning, plan your schedule in advance and space out the cleaning activities.
  • Avoid doing repetitive tasks for too long.
  • Listen to your body by taking a break when a certain body part starts to ache. 
  • Adopt good posture while cleaning. For example while mopping or vacuuming, try not to bend your back too much. Use your legs instead, keep your back fairly straight and spread the weight across both legs like you are doing a lunge.
  • Try not to lift by bending forward. Bend your hips and knees to squat down to the load. Straighten your legs to lift the load up. 
  • When cleaning a high shelf, stand onto a stool so you can clean at your shoulder level. Avoid over-extending your neck and overstretching your arm.