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Trigger Points Explained

Updated: May 26, 2023

If you have muscles, you've probably had a knot in one of them that caused pain. The pain we often call a knot or kink in your neck is most likely a trigger point.

Some trigger points HURT, and some are barely noticeable. So, what's the deal? What is a trigger point, and how do you make it stop hurting? First, we need to understand muscles.

How do muscles work?

Please enjoy the following oversimplified explanation of the function of a muscle:

A muscle consists of a group of muscle fibers. Each fiber is made of millions of bundles of proteins called sarcomeres. These proteins overlap, allowing them to grab onto each other and pull. When the sarcomeres pull: voila! Movement.

What is a trigger point?

Although we often refer to them as knots, your muscles don't have literal knots. A trigger point is an overused portion of muscle tissue. Sometimes a tiny patch of sarcomeres stays contracted when the rest of the muscle relaxes. When this patch gets "stuck," you have a trigger point.

What does a trigger point feel like?

Usually, a trigger point is sensitive to pressure and limits your movement. They can also cause referred pain.

Referred pain means a trigger point by your shoulder blade could cause pain in your neck, or a trigger point in your calf could cause pain in your foot.

Also, depending on their location, they often cause other issues like headaches or sciatica. Finally, pain is subjective, and everyone experiences it differently, so your trigger point may not feel the same as mine.

What causes trigger points?

The answer ranges from we have no idea to literally everything. Nothing has been proven, but many things seem to cause trigger points.

  1. Overexertion - When you participate in activities your body isn't accustomed to, simple actions can cause a trigger point to show its ugly face. Some common examples include:

    1. yard work

    2. weekend entertainment

    3. a new workout routine

  2. Chronic health problems - Pain from other chronic health problems can cause extra stress on the body. This stress seems to increase trigger point pain. Some common examples include:

    1. Arthritis

    2. Fibromyalgia

    3. Cancer

  3. Injury - When you have an injury, the surrounding muscles often compensate. Unfortunately, this imbalance can cause pain and trigger points in otherwise healthy areas. Some common examples include:

    1. A broken toe can cause you to walk with your weight shifted to the side of your foot. The change in gait leads to foot, leg, and hip pain.

    2. A shoulder injury causes you to overuse your uninjured arm, leading to trigger points in both shoulders.

  4. Overstretched muscles - If our muscles are stretched or shortened for an extended period, they are more likely to develop trigger points. Some common examples include:

    1. long car trips

    2. sleeping in awkward positions

    3. working long hours at a computer

How do you treat trigger points?

image of trigger point therapy applied to medial scapula

Massage can be an excellent tool for dealing with trigger points. Typically, trigger point therapy includes direct pressure on the trigger point for around a minute, with small circular or kneading strokes in between. In my experience, most people find some relief through massage therapy.

However, massage therapy is only part of a good pain management plan. Another step in dealing with trigger points is assessing your day-to-day activities. What can you identify and change that may be causing your pain? For example, can you adjust your sleep position, computer setup, or workout routine?

There's no one size fits all treatment plan for trigger points. We all require a different formula, so the best treatment for trigger points is usually a combination of methods.

Until Next Time

We need A TON more research in the massage industry, so I'll keep you updated as I learn more. In the meantime, Paul Ingraham provides an overview of industry research in his Complete Guide to Trigger Points. To learn more, visit Pain Science.

Did you know that there are a handful of essential habits that improve your health AND help you manage pain? I created a free downloadable PDF, 5 Easy Steps to Better Health, to help you take control of your trigger points. So grab your copy, book your next massage, and start becoming a healthier version of yourself today!


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