Grin and bear it

Popping over-the-counter pain meds may be doing more harm to your body — and your workout — than good. Exercise Physiologist Scott Gordon explains.

When the soreness from yesterday’s session sets in, it’s common practice to reach for the medicine cabinet. But in an attempt to numb the pain and speed recovery with ibuprofen, Aspirin and the like, you may actually be fast-forwarding through some important parts of the growth and regenerative process. The result? Potentially fewer strength gains — and wasted time — since you’re not getting the most out of the hard work you put in.

First, a little understanding of what happens when you hit the gym hard. It's quite the paradox: In order for muscles to get stronger, they have to partially break down, which sometimes can hurt. Think of skeletal muscle growth as a house under renovation where the goal is to bulldoze parts of the damaged, older sections and build new, larger ones, says Scott Gordon, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and associate professor in the department of kinesiology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

"In the muscle cells, these 'parts' are the contractile proteins," says Gordon. Along comes the force — be it dumbbells, squat repetitions, etc. — to take the proteins down by causing microscopic tears in the muscle cells. According to Gordon, "This stimulates a strong physiological response in the body that not only compensates for the damage, but actually causes muscle cells to grow, creating larger, stronger cells in the end."

During this complex regeneration process, the body releases several growth factors (a type of hormone), some of which stimulate muscle growth and cause inflammation. One such class of growth factors is the prostaglandins, which are also partly responsible for the pain response. Then when the aches, pains and swelling set in, we instinctually reach for the medicine cabinet to self-soothe with ibuprofen, Aspirin or naproxen.

The problem? "All of these drugs act by inhibiting cyclooxygenase, or COX, the enzyme responsible for prostaglandin production," Gordon says. "So as you’re numbing the pain, research has shown that you’re also negating the effects of your workout by inhibiting some of your body’s regeneration process."

Several studies have also reported that taking over-the-counter dosages of anti-inflammatory meds after a workout can inhibit muscle stem cell activation, which may lead to significant muscle damage. "Scientists found this rang true even for exercisers just doing moderate resistance training," Gordon says.

Gordon’s bottom line: Unless the pain is unbearable, or you’ve been told otherwise by your physician, put a lid on it. See our tips for recovering the right way.