What Do Trigger Points Feel Like?
Have you felt tight, sore spots in your muscles that just won’t go away? Or have you experienced immediate spasms or cramps that immediately get your attention? Or have muscles that have sore spots when you press on them? Do you have recurrent headaches, eye or jaw pain? Chronic neck or back muscular and joint pain? Recurrent stiffness in your muscles or joints? If so, you most likely will have trigger points that are at least part of the blame.
What Are Trigger Points?
Muscles are predictable. If a muscle 1) get tired, 2) has too much strain or force placed on it, 3) if there’s pain involved, 4) if a muscle is in a sustained position for too long and/or if 5) there are metabolic or nutritional deficits – then a muscle will react by maintaining a sustained contraction. This occurs at a local muscle and/or joint level, and also reflexively at the level of the spinal cord. It’s a protective mechanism to make sure that the muscle is not injured by continuing to work if any of these four conditions are met.
Latent Trigger Points
Sustained postures and repetitive movements often lead to muscular fatigue, with a resulting neuro-muscular muscular “holding patterns.” in a muscle or group of muscles. A trigger point starts where the concentration of nerve endings in the muscle is the greatest – where the nerve innervates the muscle. Often these latent trigger points can persist without your awareness – unless you check for them.
For your slow-twitch postural muscles – associated with your back, trunk, neck, head and eye positions – trigger points in these areas most often begin as latent trigger points. When they become active , they usually involve larger patterns of trigger points and pain that become more difficult to reverse.
Active Trigger Points
When a latent trigger point persists, or the pain, force or degree of muscular contraction escalates, then the trigger point gets your attention! Muscular, joint and body movement are limited, and the trigger point pattern needs to be inhibited in order for you to move well or to achieve optimal posture. Fast-twitch muscles, such as in your calf and other extremity muscles, trigger points get your attention immediately. There’s a sense of urgency to reverse the trigger point/ muscular spasm pattern in order to walk or move properly.
How To Get Rid of Trigger Points
First, you need to find you trigger points. Keep in mind that normal muscles are not sore when you press on them. So you can use a tennis ball, foam roller, yoga block (or other such device) to apply accupressure to the tight/sore spot in the muscle. With acupressure, you should apply no more than 5-10 lbs of pressure on the trigger point.
Be sure you are in a position where you can relax your body while you are applying the acupressure. I recommend starting with lying down on a mattress, yoga mat or carpet. Or sitting in a comfortable chair or car seat (not driving!) where your neck/ shoulders and body are supported. Ideally while performing diaphragmatic breathing (a topic for a future blog post…).
While applying sustained pressure – by orienting your body or the tennis ball, foam roller or yoga block – wait for the trigger point to release and relax. You’ll feel less pressure, less tightness and less soreness when this occurs. You’re waiting for the release, so it’s not a fixed amount of time. On average, a release may require about a minute, but it may take longer if you have chronic or very active trigger point patterns.
Strategy & Technique
Prevention with due diligence is the key. Be sure you check your body on a regular basis for trigger points. Muscles will tend to fatigue as the day and week go on, so finding time to check for them as part of your routine is key. That way you’ll find latent trigger points before they escalate to become larger active trigger points. The active trigger points take longer to reverse and result in a larger degree of inflammation and dysfunction (also the topic of a future blog…).
I’d highly recommend checking for and releasing your trigger points before bedtime. You’ll not only sleep better, but you’ll have better metabolic recovery during your sleep cycle, and you’ll wake up with less tightness and soreness as well.
Health Benefits & Positive Reward
It’s counter-intuitive, but the more frequently you screen your body for trigger points, and the more more often you reverse them, then the less you’ll need to do it in the future. With reversing trigger points on a regular basis, your muscles can strengthen and your body can move well. That’s a recipe for optimal movement, postures and function – without pain.
Reversing trigger points should not be painful. You should feel and move better after the trigger points are released. Reach out to your Doctor of Physical Therapy or your physician if you have any questions or symptoms that are not responding positively. When in doubt, ask for advice and get clearance from your health professional.
Trigger points are only one small part of the story that makes up human movement. Our bodies are incredibly complex. Human movement involves multiple systems – your musculo-skeletal, central & peripheral nervous, cardio-vascular & endocrine systems. These systems work together to create human movement.
A Final Word
It’s my pleasure and privilege to support you as a physical therapist and a human movement specialist. I’m always here to help you learn more about your body and to empower you to move well to achieve your optimal movement, activity and health goals.
My best to you as we move for health,