Lactic Acid, DOMS and Massage: Tidbits of what we know (Part 1 of 2)

Delayed-onset muscle soreness, DOMS, is the soreness and tenderness in your muscles after strenuous exercise.  Previously it was believe that lactic acid was the cause, but studies have moved past that theory.  Many believe massage is extremely beneficial for post-exercise muscle recovery and helping to prevent DOMS.  The only question is if we aren’t positive of the cause, can we know if massage will actually help with DOMS?


To understand DOMS and any relationship with lactic acid, we must understand how lactic acid builds during exercise.  Otto Meyerhof, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1922 for his discovery using a frog leg, was the first to establish that lactic acid exposed to oxygen converts to carbohydrate. quoted Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1922-1941 for Meyerhof’s biography, saying that his discovery was that of a fixed relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in the muscle.”  This discovery developed and led to the current misconception that lactic acid is actually the cause of DOMS.


In the past, medical professionals believed lactic acid was the cause of DOMS, by suggesting that lack of oxygen creates lactic acid, which leads to fatigue in muscles. Stephen M. Roth, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, explains.  In reality this was only part of the bigger picture.


His article, “Why does lactic acid build up in muscles? And why does it cause soreness?” explains both processes the body can use during exercise to produce energy.  The preferred process is aerobic, with oxygen, and another is the anaerobic, glycolysis or from glucose. Glucose, after it has metabolized into pyruvate, can be broken down into energy with oxygen but if oxygen is lacking it will be converted in to lactate.  Glycolysis is the process that takes place when oxygen is limited; it creates lactic acid in working muscles. This happens when the body can’t get oxygen to the muscle sufficiently for it to break down glucose to create energy.


One claim massage professionals have made in the past is that massage promotes muscle blood flow, which in turn flushes out lactic acid that builds up after a hard workout, relieving pain once thought to be DOMS.  Since we have discovered that lactic acid is not the cause of DOMS this claim has lost validity amongst athletes and many others.


As we continue to learn more about muscles, we understand now that microscopic tearing has taken the focus off lactic acid as the cause of soreness after strenuous exertion of your muscles. I would like to note that Stephen M. Roth does mention, in the article I quoted above, that the precise cause of DOMS is still unknown by experts.


This background on lactic acid and DOMS will expand on how we relate massage as possible relief for DOMS in part 2 of Lactic Acid, DOMS and Massage: Tidbits of What We Know (Part 2 of 2)




Otto Fritz Meyerhof biography:

Article by Stephen M. Roth:


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