“What are Trigger points?”
The introductory version.
Have you ever felt a pinch in a muscle, or a spasm that sent a feeling like a jolt or searing pain? Maybe it felt like you were unable to rotate your head like you should, perhaps you couldn’t reach back with your arm as far as you normally would, or even bend over to pick up something. Well, there are actually many things that could be causing this pain, but today I’m going to break down just one of those many possible causes. Today I’m going to talk about pain originating from a muscle.
Now, pain doesn’t come from muscles, it comes from nerves. That’s the signal system the body uses to convey the things you feel, through a variety of receptors. But when I say pain from a muscle origin, I mean skeletal muscle, not pain coming from two bones pinching a nerve, or from your stomach being irritated.
How does a muscle cause pain? This warrants its own post (coming soon™), but to summarize: in many ways. You don’t have to pull a muscle for it to hurt. You can underuse a muscle and it can cause pain- yes that’s right, you can sit around all day and that could lead to your muscles becoming atrophied or “shorter”, causing pressure to be placed on a nerve. It could be from dehydration, or even a lack of some dietary minerals. It can come from a lack of blood flow getting through to deliver important nutrients. It could be a sudden intense event, or doing one movement many times (overuse injury). It could come from sleeping on it funny, from twisting in a way its not used to… whatever the reason, your muscle can get little “knots” that feel very sensitive. Some of these knots are called “trigger points” and the resulting pain is called “myofascial pain syndrome”.
The painful areas may not necessarily be where the trigger point is. For example you may feel pain or numbness in the hand, but the tight muscle might be in the neck or shoulder. The hand would be considered a “referral zone”. There are many of these zones, where pain is referred, and a therapist who studies trigger point therapy learns many of these patterns.
Why don’t I just ignore my pain and carry on?
Well, there is a certain amount of “tough it out” that is good for you. On the other hand, there are reasons that your body is telling you it’s in pain. Mechanisms kick in that cause your balance to shift, your mobility to change, and these compensation habits can have lasting effects. Some are subtle, but for an obvious example, let’s say your knee is hurting and you shift your weight to the opposite leg. Over time, your weight to the leg that feels fine, and you begin to build stronger muscle on only that side. Perhaps your lower back may start to ache, as the rest of your body stabilizes itself to keep you upright. You could further extrapolate from here that your shoulders might then be affected, and your neck, and who knows maybe even your brain becomes lopsided (probably not)… but it may be sufficient to say that small adjustments over time can lead to imbalances that could have been prevented. You can work on your trigger points at home or with a massage therapist.
The actual mechanisms behind trigger points (what causes them) is a fascinating and debated topic that I will cover in later posts.
What's going on with me, research articles, interesting little blurbs. This blog is an attempt to consolidate research into an easily digestible format.
Alex Moon has been a Licensed Massage Therapist since 2012, did his undergraduate studies at Utah State, and is currently working on his Doctorate in Physical Therapy.