Due to increasing risk of side effects and cross-reactions with other drugs and supplements, healthcare providers and researchers have long been looking for healthy alternatives to replace pain medications with natural and holistic methods of reducing muscle pain after exercise.
For years, massage therapy, acupuncture and pain relieving exercises were preferred than drug medications to manage mild pain. In the past few years, a lot of herbs and supplements were investigated and marketed in an attempt to reduce the intensity and severity of pain as well as to decrease the physical and psychological dependence on synthetic pain-killers. All these attempts have led to the discovery that caffeine reduces muscle pain as it contain hypoalgesic that is used to reduce the perception of pain by brain.
What Causes Muscle Pain After Exercise?
Muscle pain is a broad term that includes discomfort, stiffness or soreness that may follow after exercise, physical activity, trauma or accidents. There may be a number of causes or patho-physiological factors that may contribute to the symptoms of muscle pain. The management or remedy is dependent on the cause and intensity of pain.
Few common ones are:
- Traumatic muscular pain as a result of sprain, tearing and stretching of tissues after an accident, fall or assault (5). Such type of pain is mainly due to inflammatory process and production of special mediators that causes pain like bradykinin. It responds normally to potent pain-killers like non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opoid analgesics.
- Pain as a result of over-activity of muscles (6) is reported in athletes, body-builders, weight lifters and sportsmen. It is a physiological type of pain that occurs due to build-up of lactic acid. When muscles exercise, the cellular machinery use oxygen to burn carbohydrates to release water and carbon dioxide. However, if the activity is continued for prolonged periods, the body may not deliver optimal oxygen to the exercising muscles and under anerobic (less oxygen environment), carbohydrate sources burn to release lactic acid (that is pain sensitive and leads to aching or soreness characteristic of strenuous physical activity). It responds very well to hydration, rest and massage (to wash- off the lactic acid into the circulation).
Lactic acid accumulation is believed to be a protective mechanism that signals over-activity of muscles under unfavorable circumstances. Research suggests that caffeine intake is helpful in relieving this type of muscle pain after exercise. The biggest hazard of muscle pain is decreased exercise endurance and compliance of athletes. Caffeine intake helps in improving both the compliance and endurance.
Can Caffeine Reduces Muscle Pain?
According to the latest research, caffeine can reduce muscle pain and soreness after prolonged periods of exercise and physical activity. Rc. Motl (1) conducted a study in young athletes. In order to measure the effect quantitatively, he conducted double-blind, placebo controlled study (dividing the study sample in two groups and prescribing one group with caffeine [study group] and other group [control group] with placebo that had no chemical activity). He advised moderate to high dosage of caffeine (almost 10mg/ kg of the body weight).
After 1 hour of administration of caffeine or placebo, the group was subjected to moderate physical activity in the form of cycling. Motl measured parameters like muscle pain, heart rate, consumption of oxygen and the rate of activity. It is identified that the caffeine group performed much better on the physical activity with reduced perception of muscle pain. He suggested that the caffeine induced enhanced exercise endurance is attributed to the “hypo-algesic” effect of caffeine.
Another study conducted by M. Doherty (7) suggested that caffeine improves the athletic performance by 11.2% and an improvement of up to 29% can be achieved with controlled caffeine intake in healthy athletes. These effects were mediated by the caffeine induced mental alertness, reduced feeling of fatigue and decreased perception of muscle pain.
How Caffeine Reduces Muscle Pain?
It is believed that exercise induced muscle pain is the product of lactic acid build-up and excessive release of calcium in the system (since the main contracting force to muscle fibers is supplied by calcium that is stored inside the sarcoplasmic reticulum (a cellular component that is abundantly found in the muscles). It was suggested that since caffeine intake increases the blood pressure and heart rate, the early lactic acid wash-off is responsible for the role of caffeine in reducing muscle pain. However, research conducted by Patrick J. O’Connor (2) proved otherwise.
Patrick J. O’Connor introduced caffeine in a moderate dose to all the study subjects and carefully monitored the heart rate, blood pressure and basal muscle activity. After 1 hour post- caffeine, he subjected all the study participants to moderate physical activity (like cycling) fort 30 minutes. He confirmed that although caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure, the effect is not responsible for the pain reduction or increased exercise endurance. Dr. Daniel E. Myers (4) indicated that analgesic activity of caffeine is linked to adenosine.
What is the recommended dose of caffeine to relieve muscle soreness?
Due to high competition and increasing influence of performance enhancing drugs, the use of legal as well as illegal drugs among athletes has tremendously increased in the past few years. Almost all sports drinks contain high doses of caffeine (since athletes are not routinely tested for serum caffeine concentration and it is also not considered a so-called “performance enhancing illict drug”.
However, just recently certain organizations like the Olympics administration have restricted the athletes from limiting caffeine intake and banned athletes who had more than 800 mg of caffeine (equivalent to roughly 8 cups of coffee) in their system.There is a huge concern among researchers about the safe dose of caffeine that can improve exercise endurance without compromising health and well-being.
A study conducted by researchers from University of Georgia suggested an actual (or more functional dose) of caffeine that can reduce the muscle pain after physical activity or workout. Researchers identified that an approximate 48% reduction in the soreness and pain of muscles after workout can be achieved if you consume 2 cups of coffee an hour before workout. Ideally the dose of 5 to 10 mg/ kg body weight is considered optimal by researchers.
What Are The Risks Associated With Caffeine Intake Before Exercise?
Healthcare providers suggest that the pain after exercise or strenuous physical activity is a protective sign that signals over-activity of muscles and build-up of lactic acid. Ideally muscle aches or soreness must be taken seriously and physical activity should be aborted, instead of suppressing the protective body signaling by caffeine. Hazards associated with high caffeine intake are:
- Increased irritability, jitteriness and agitation with high serum caffeine concentration that alters the concentration, attention span and thus the overall physical performance.
- Risk of arrhythmia (abnormal cardiac contractility) due to over-stimulation of heart muscles may lead to weakening of cardiac tissue, ischemic injury, dizziness and even unconsciousness.
- Caffeine is an inherent cardio-stimulant that increases the heart rate and the blood pressure due to adenosine mediated activity. During moderate physical activity, sympathetic influence further aggravates heart rate and blood flow across muscles that may lead to ischemic cardiac issues.
- Excessive caffeine is associated with increased production of gastric acid that may increase the risk of developing peptic ulcers, dyspepsia and indigestion. Since exercise or physical activity also increases the sympathetic activity, the risk of dyspepsia increases.
- Insomnia due to hyper-excitability of brain cells.
- Since caffeine suppresses the release of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) from brain, high serum concentration is associated with dehydration.
- Caffeine has dependence potential (so you may experience withdrawal marked by headaches, nausea, lack of motivation, dizziness, yawning if you use caffeine for a longer period of time in substantially high doses).
What are the cautions that you must maintain with caffeine intake for muscle pain?
Although, this is indeed a natural method of improving exercise endurance and athletic performance, healthcare providers always advice caution with excessive caffeine intake. Following cautions are helpful:
- Restrict the use of caffeine to no more than 250 mg/ day (that includes caffeine in the form of supplements, sports-drinks, coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages).
- Do not exercise soon after the consumption of caffeine (always keep a window of 1 hour between caffeine consumption and work-out).
- Increase your water intake to detoxify your body to eliminate the traces of caffeine from your system.
- Speak to your healthcare provider if you have a cardiac condition before using caffeine to reduce muscle pain before or after workout.
Caffeine has long been known to stimulate the mental alertness, attention span and decrease the feeling of fatigue. However, recent studies indicate that caffeine reduces muscle pain after exercise too that makes it a great athletic supplement. Although the effects are pronounced, it is recommended to maintain caution in consumption of excessive caffeine.
1. Motl, R. W., O’Connor, P. J., & Dishman, R. K. (2003). Effect of caffeine on perceptions of leg muscle pain during moderate intensity cycling exercise. The journal of pain: official journal of the American Pain Society, 4(6), 316.
2. O’Connor, P. J., Motl, R. W., Broglio, S. P., & Ely, M. R. (2004). Dose-dependent effect of caffeine on reducing leg muscle pain during cycling exercise is unrelated to systolic blood pressure. Pain, 109(3), 291-298.
3. Maridakis, V., O’Connor, P. J., Dudley, G. A., & McCully, K. K. (2007). Caffeine attenuates delayed-onset muscle pain and force loss following eccentric exercise. The Journal of Pain, 8(3), 237-243.
4. Myers, D. E., Shaikh, Z., & Zullo, T. G. (1997). Hypoalgesic effect of caffeine in experimental ischemic muscle contraction pain. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 37(10), 654-658.
5. Hubbard, D. R. (1996). Chronic and recurrent muscle pain: pathophysiology and treatment, and review of pharmacologic studies. Journal of Musculoskelatal Pain, 4(1-2), 123-144.
6. Bailey, D. M., Davies, B., Young, I. S., Hullin, D. A., & Seddon, P. S. (2001). A potential role for free radical-mediated skeletal muscle soreness in the pathophysiology of acute mountain sickness. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 72(6), 513.
7. Doherty, M., & Smith, P. M. (2005). Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta‐analysis. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 15(2), 69-78.