A trigger point is a spot in the muscle itself, where the muscle fibers are contracted. That means a section of the muscle, not the whole muscle, has muscle fibers that are 'on' or 'active', which means they are stuck in a contracted state. This makes them very difficult to release or relax, and they can stay contracted for years, even decades, if left untreated.
Oftentimes, these muscle knots will develop as a result of a muscle being used too much or with it being unable to relax and forced to hold tension. Once that muscle stays contracted or is used for too long for then the muscle just decides: Okay, I guess I'm supposed to stay on and I'm supposed to say contracted.
This can happen in a small or large section of the muscle or even the whole muscle itself.
Knots like these can stay like this, and the body will start to guard this area and protect it from further damage. This causes a compensation pattern, which can lead to even more problems.
A good example of this is people who are typing with their arms out in front of them all day. The muscles here in their upper shoulder area are 'on' to prevent the shoulders from falling forward. If you're doing that for hours and hours on end, that muscle will become a knot and it will stay on and it won't turn off.
Because of this protection, the knot over time can begin squeezing all the blood vessels that go through the muscle. Like squeezing a hose to stop the flow, when you cut off the blood flow to a muscle, it prevents proper circulation. When you cut off circulation, oxygen and nutrients can no longer effectively reach the tissue, preventing it from proper function and healing. Additionally, cutting off circulation doesn't allow for toxins to be carried away from the muscle. Then it becomes a kind of swamp, it becomes thick with no movement, and it just gets stuck. One thing that can accrue in the tissue is calcium, too much calcium can cause a contracted muscle to contract even harder which solidifies the problem even further.
The way to increase heat to release tension in the area. Some examples include,
- Hot Tub
- Heat Pads
- Infrared Laser
Increasing circulation can be a great first step, unfortunately, most people stop there. The best technique is to apply prolonged pressure to the muscle knot or trigger point. And I'll get to that in one moment.
I want to clarify what the term trigger point really means. The trigger point or knot is something you can actually feel in a muscle with your hand, it's harder and doesn't give like the surrounding musculature. Usually, when you apply pressure, it causes discomfort elsewhere in the body known as deferred pain.
Trigger points are important because often, we will have pain in one area of the body. This pain is being caused by a knot somewhere else that is causing a restriction in normal movement. For example, a tension headache can be coming from the neck and shoulders, not where you feel it.
How to release a knot or trigger point.
Simply rubbing or pushing on a knot for a few seconds is not enough. We need prolonged pressure from anywhere between 3-5 mins. This amount of time will actually tell receptors on the muscle to relax and stop holding tension. The pressure at first will cause pain where you're pressing, but if you have genuinely found the trigger point, that pain will start to manifest in the area that is causing you problems. Trigger points can also refer pain to several places; there are certain patterns that we typically see that we can predict or make an educated guess that it is the source of the pain. For example, a knot in the trap muscle causing a headache or a pian down into the arm.
Prolonged pressure sends a signal to the brain to relax the knot and stop holding tension or protecting the area. Whatever the cause of the tension, overworking, past trauma, or injury, prolonged pressure is the key to releasing it.
So that's the key. If we don't change that pattern of tension, we cant improve.
So I hope this helps you to understand a little bit more about what a tight muscle is and what trigger points are and how to address them.
If this was interesting and you would like to learn more, I wrote a whole book about this called Tight Hip Twisted Core!