There’s nothing better than feeling the burn after a hardcore workout…you know, until the burn decides to stick around and eff with your range of motion. (So much for going dancing later.) Doing the same type of exercise often (like running, cycling, or swimming) can put you at risk for tendinitis, a repetitive stress injury that messes with your joints—but how can you tell if that nagging shoulder of yours is just sore or if there’s something more going on?
Here are three telltale signs that it’s maybe/probably/totally tendinitis:
Compared to everyday muscle aches, tendinitis pain is specific in both locale and sensation. “The most obvious sign of tendinitis is pain at the site of the tendon,” says Henry Halse, a Philadelphia-based certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Tendons are located at the beginning and end of your muscle, so you’ll usually have this dull, achy pain around your joints and a tendon that’s sore to the touch.” Knee tendinitis, for example, translates into pain above or below the knee (where the tendon is located) and will hurt more when you use your quads. “Remember that tendons connect muscle to bone, which means that your pain will be at a joint and not in the middle of the bone, like in the middle of your bicep,” says Halse. “Muscle soreness, on the other hand, will be felt in the muscle belly, which will be in the middle of a bone, not at a joint.”
Another difference between typical soreness and tendinitis is when the pain strikes. “Post-exercise pain is usually delayed in onset and causes no significant soreness during the workout,” says Michael Jonesco, M.D., sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It’s brought on by new or increasing activities and is typically appreciated in the bellies of the muscles (midway between your joints).” On the flipside, tendon problems tend to be painful during use, and can become more painful as the extremity is exercised, says Jonesco.
“Post-exercise soreness (the kind we get one or two days after the first leg day in six months) is a completely normal response of the body as it adapts to changing demands,” says Jonesco. But if your pain is joint-centric and persists for more than two weeks—even after cutting your bod some serious slack—there’s a good chance tendinitis is the culprit and you should check in with your doc for a consult.
The bottom line: If it turns out your pain is of the tendinitis persuasion, the best thing you can do is…well, not much, says Halse. (No, but seriously.) “Tendons connect muscle to bone, which means every time you use that muscle, you’re putting strain on the tendon,” he says. “Use a brace if you can to immobilize the joint and rest the tendon. You can also stretch the tendon or get a massage for the sore tendon and all the muscles around it. Once the pain goes away, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go on a basic strength-training program to strengthen the muscle and tendons to prevent it from happening again.”