What are trigger points?

Trigger points found in the upper back and neck

What are trigger points?

Trigger points are little super-sensitive area of muscle that send signals along nerves to give pain in another area of the body. Headaches caused by trigger points in the upper back are a common example. Trigger points can cause damage to the muscle cells and can weaken the muscle.

It’s common to discover trigger points during a massage treatment, and they can also show up in MRI scans and thermal images during research. Have you ever felt a strange tingling or painful sensation flowing to, or emerging in, an unexpected area during a massage? Perhaps down your leg while your hips were being treated? Or all around your shoulder blade while your upper back was being massaged. Or perhaps at the top of your head while you neck was being treated?

Trigger points tend to be found in predictable locations, and can be mapped on charts that show where the trigger point is typically located and where the pain refers to. They can be caused by stress, injury and overuse of muscles. When trigger points are active, muscles are held tight by the brain so that the muscle is unable to relax its normal resting length. The tightness of the muscle around the trigger point restricts blood flow to the area, starving the cells of oxygen and causing pain. Changes can also occur in the muscle tissue, causing damage to the muscle fibres, releasing stored calcium and producing taught fibrous bands. Tight muscle fibres may also compress nerves, resulting in a pain-spasm-pain cycle. We might compensate for this pain by changing our posture to get more comfortable, but this in turn may cause other areas of tension and more trigger points.

How are trigger points treated?

Trigger points are typically treated by pressing on the area for around 8 seconds. During this time the point feels sore and a strange sensation or pain is also felt in another area of the body. The sensation may radiate from the trigger point, or it may appear at a more distant location. As part of a remedial or sports massage, the muscle of the trigger point is then stretched and relaxed using myofascial release or muscle energy techniques. This resets the muscle fibres and fascia to their normal resting length, and helps to prevent the trigger point from reactivating.

So next time you’re having a massage and you feel that weird buzzing pain where you hadn’t expected it, let your massage therapist know. Therapists love feedback to help them focus their treatment, and you’ll love the results!

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