Major muscle groups in the thigh include hamstrings, quadriceps and adductors.
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Skeletal muscles are responsible for everyday movement, and are attached to your skeleton's bones via tendons. When engaged in physical activity that relies heavily on leg movement, such as hiking, you may experience muscle pain in your thighs for any number of reasons. Some of the reasons for muscle pain after hiking may include lactic acid buildup, delayed onset soreness, strains and low potassium levels.
Lactic Acid Buildup
There are times during physical activity when your muscle cells may need more fuel than is readily available. According to "Scientific American," when this happens, since your primary fuels, such as oxygen, are in low supply, your body begins to convert other substances into lactic acid as a fuel substitute. Because your body doesn't use the lactic acid as efficiently as its regular fuel, the acid builds up/accumulates within your muscles and can cause painful burning sensations. While these sensations usually develop during hiking, they can also be felt immediately afterward. As "Scientific American" points out, this type of muscle pain is temporary, and generally stops within an hour after you stop or slow down. No additional treatment is needed, because your body automatically eliminates the acid buildup. However, ABC-Of-Hiking.com reports that as you gradually become more physically fit, your body will become more efficient at fuel management, which equates to fewer or less-intense incidents.
Delayed Onset Soreness
Muscle pain that isn't felt until about 24 hours after hiking is possibly delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), DOMS is caused by microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Also a temporary condition, DOMS generally lasts for about three to five days. ACSM advises that DOMS pain symptoms can usually be alleviated through various at-home treatments such as over-the-counter pain relievers, massages and ice packs. ACSM reports that DOMS isn't completely preventable, but soreness can be minimized by gradually pacing yourself for hiking or other activities, which allows your muscles to adapt.
Unlike sprains, which are caused by damage to your ligaments, strains are injuries to your tendons or muscles. As Johns Hopkins reports, these muscle injuries are not microscopic tears within muscle tissues as with DOMS, but instead are pulls or rips/tears to full muscle tissues. In addition to pain, strain symptoms may include muscle spasms, weakness and swelling. These symptoms are prevalent in mild to moderate strains where the muscle is overstretched or pulled. However, in severe cases where the muscle is actually torn, it's common for individuals to also be incapacitated. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), temporary in-home treatment includes rest, using ice packs and compression, and elevating your leg. AAOS advises that it's crucial in all cases -- except those involving mild strain cases -- to get medical attention. The recovery period varies with the degree of injury, ranging from a week to months.
Low Potassium Levels
You may also experience temporary muscle pain due to low levels of potassium in your bloodstream. NIH's MedlinePlus.com reports that this is because potassium -- which is a mineral that functions as an electrolyte -- helps manage many biological activities, including muscle function, by regulating electrical charges. Electrolytes such as potassium are depleted when you sweat, and if not replenished, can cause imbalances that exhibit muscle pain symptoms. In most cases, these imbalance can be treated at home by replenishing and managing your potassium levels by drinking water before, during and after hiking; eating foods that are high in potassium, such as potatoes (with the skin) and bananas; and by drinking electrolyte enriched drinks.