Woman sitting on running track holding knee

How to Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Pain

Kerrie-Ann Bernard Pain


You know that feeling when you’re powering through exercise, sweat pouring down your face, strongly considering quitting? Then out of the corner of your eye someone hits you with a knowing grin and says, “no pain, no gain?”

The phrase isn’t untrue. Whether you’re trying to get in shape, starting a new sport/exercise plan or taking your fitness to the next level, there are going to be challenges. We all accept a certain level of discomfort from physical exertion.

But how do you draw the line between “good pain” (i.e. something you should push past to achieve your goals) and “bad pain” (i.e. something you should listen to as a sign of over doing it)?

What is good pain?

One of the most common forms of “good pain” is what doctors and physiotherapists may refer to as delayed onset muscle soreness,” or DOMS. It happens when you’ve challenged a muscle with something it’s not used to (new, returning or increased exercise). Within one to two days, you’ll start to feel soreness in the area and it may be tender to touch. But, it goes away quickly after that.

The pain comes from micro trauma in the muscle caused by rigorous exercise. But that’s not a bad thing. A muscle gets stronger, building denser tissue, when it has a reason to remodel itself. When it senses the tiny trauma, the muscle repairs tissue to allow for more endurance. The key here is the “micro” part of “trauma.”

What is bad pain?

“Bad pain” is an injury. Continuing to exercise with an injury will not allow you to push through pain or reach your goals. It will only make things worse. You need to stop and seek a recovery plan.

How do you tell the difference?

There are a few key indicators you’re crossing over into serious or “bad pain.”

  1. The good pain makes you tired but you keep going, sacrificing your form just to continue the exercise. Bad form leads to bad pain.
  2. The pain comes on all of a sudden (sometimes with a pop, crack or feeling that something isn’t right).
  3. The pain is in your joints (i.e. your knee). You should never have joint pain after working out because there is no “good joint pain.”
  4. The pain isn’t equal on both sides (i.e. does one shoulder hurt while the other is fine?).
  5. The pain is pinpointed in one area, as opposed to more general and spread out (i.e. are you experience pain in your calf muscle, just above your heel?).

Essentially, reading your own body is the best indicator between good and bad pain. Pay attention to how you feel before, during and after exercise (for at least one to two days).


Still not sure if your pain is good or bad? Chat with a qualified physiotherapist today.

Share this Post