The Unexpected, Sneaky Cause of Muscle Pain

The Unexpected, Sneaky Cause of Muscle Pain

Real Simple, October 2019

Jane Bianchi

Tiny knots known as “trigger points” can radiate discomfort throughout your body. Here’s how to get rid of them.

When it comes to muscle pain, sometimes the spot where you feel the pain isn’t the spot that’s causing the pain; instead, the discomfort could be the result of a “trigger point,” or a hyperirritable band of muscle that can register as soreness in another area of your body.

What’s an Example of a Trigger Point?

A trigger point in your calf could limit the range of motion in your ankle, a trigger point in your quad could manifest in your knee, a trigger point in your glutes could feel like a pain in your lower back, and so on. Sometimes trigger points in the neck can cause headaches, ringing in the ears, or jaw aches. If the pain itself doesn’t drive you mad, locating the source of it just might.

What Causes Trigger Points?

Typically, trigger points are the result of an acute trauma, like a car accident, or a repetitive micro-trauma, like running long distances for months or years with improper form; poor posture; or a stress-induced clenching of muscles.

If you have trigger points, it means your fascial system, or connective tissue system, has been compromised, a musculoskeletal condition called myofascial pain syndrome. “Fascia is like saran wrap that covers muscle tissue and envelopes it, almost like a bag,” Bianca Beldini, a doctor of physical therapy and licensed acupuncturist at Sundala Center for Wellness in New York City, explains. When a muscle becomes overworked, it starts to swell in that fascial bag and can result in hypoxia, a decrease in oxygenation of the muscle tissue. “So the muscle is basically suffocating,” Beldini says, and that only makes the swelling worse. “A trigger point is a fascial knot and you can actually feel it—it’s palpable. When muscles swell, we need to release that fascial tension.”

How Are Trigger Points Treated?

If the pain is mild and you know the location of the trigger point, you can try an at-home approach: warm the muscle with a heating pad or an Epsom salt bath, massage the trigger point with a foam roller or a lacrosse or golf ball, and stretch. You can also take a pain reliever like Advil to help relieve those muscle aches.

If that’s not helping, your primary care physician will likely refer you to a physical therapist, or you can consider an acupuncturist, chiropractor, or massage therapist. Professional methods to treat trigger points include active release technique or mayofascial release therapy, a type of soft-tissue treatment that combines movement and manipulation; dry needling, where a physical therapist inserts a needle directly into the trigger point, increasing blood flow to the area, decreasing tightness, and alleviating pain; and ultrasound, which uses sound waves to increase circulation and warmth to the affected muscle.

Longer-term, you should discuss with your medical team ways to improve your posture or address any stress-related issues that might be causing you to tense up. If you regularly work out, play sports, or participate in physical activities like dancing or bowling, be sure to practice proper form and incorporate stretching into your post-play routine. Doing so could spare you hours of agony.

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