Being able to massage your own body saves you a lot of money spent on professional masseuses. Beyond that, it also puts you in touch with your body and teaches you to respond intuitively to tension and pain.
In this post, we’ll look at how you can relieve and prevent muscle aches and pains through self-massage techniques that penetrate and heal your tissues.
You’ll learn the tools that make it possible and get step-by-step instructions for releasing critical trigger points throughout your body that are common sources of tension and pain.
What Causes Muscle Tension and Pain?
Localized muscle pain is typically caused by a buildup of tension and stress. Overuse of a muscle and imbalance of opposing muscle groups can also be a cause.
A trigger point is a small, localized area of inflammation in the fascia around your muscles . The taut bands of the fascia become tight and sometimes knotted, and the result is tension, pain and less motility.
Releasing these trigger points is often referred to as myofascial release and can bring a host of great benefits. Self-massage or myofascial release will be of benefit if you…
- Experience muscle tightness or pain
- Work at a desk
- Lift weights or do repetitive motions like pitching
- Have poor posture
- Struggle with anxiety
- Have insomnia
- Love getting massages but can’t afford regular ones from a masseuse
- Have joint injuries like tennis elbow
How Does Self-Massage Work?
While there are many potential causes of muscle aches and pains, trigger points are usually at least one piece of the puzzle, if not all of it.
Trigger point release provides a great deal of relief and knowing the right self-massage techniques can get you there.
You’ll need some tools to help you, but once you have them, you’ve got a convenient way to relieve pain and tension whenever and wherever you need to.
Using your hands, fingers and elbows to massage taut muscles is better than no massage, but it doesn’t compare to what you’re able to do with tools designed for self-massage.
In this post, we are going to focus on the most basic tools which include massage balls, trigger point massage sticks and foam rollers.
Massage balls are affordable, versatile and highly portable massage tools for self-massage.
They’re like a tennis or lacrosse ball, but engineered at the right density to apply the perfect amount of pressure to tight muscles when you roll them against a wall or the floor.
You can also hold the ball in your hand to apply more pressure to a muscle than you could with your hand alone.
They come in different sizes, but they’re generally around the size of lacrosse balls or tennis balls. The small size allows them to massage and release smaller areas foam rollers can’t.
You can use a massage ball on your hips, back, neck, chest, shoulders, arms and feet.
Trigger Point Massage Sticks
Massage sticks are another versatile and portable tool, and there are a range of different types.
Most allow you to push the length of the stick along muscles for myofascial release, similar to the way a foam roller works.
Some have knobs designed to help you release small trigger points on your back, neck, shoulders, legs and feet by leveraging the stick.
For example, the Body Back Buddy is an S-shaped massage cane with 11 knobs, and it comes with videos that teach you how to use it to target different trigger points. Others, like the Thera Cane, are simpler and easier to use intuitively.
Foam rollers are cylinder tools made with very high-density foam that firmly compresses your muscles when you roll on them.
They’re one of the most common tools used for myofascial release, because of the way they can quickly release large areas of fascia, especially in your legs.
Using a foam roller can be quite painful at first, but it becomes less uncomfortable with regular use, as it promotes the healing of your muscles and fascia.
While foam rollers are excellent for massaging large muscles like your calves, quads, hamstrings and lats, they can’t accomplish everything alone.
You need a tool that is smaller and rounder to dig into nooks and crannies like your shoulders and shoulder blades, and more delicate areas like your neck and knee joints.
The Best Self-Massage Techniques for Every Body Part
Follow these instructions to get started with self-massage on any body part from head to toe.
It’s important to listen to your body as you perform these exercises. Areas that are more painful to the touch are areas holding more tension. You can zero in on the sources of tightness and pain by noticing what you feel when applying pressure.
Head & Neck
Do you suffer from frequent headaches? It could be caused by holding muscle tension in your head.
How does it happen?
When you sit in a posture for long periods where your neck isn’t aligned with your spine, with your head pushed forward in a “forward head” position.
This is common for desk workers, but also if you spend a lot of time on your phone. To release the tension and stiffness that develops at the base of your skull, you’ll need 2 massage balls, or 2 tennis balls.
To do this release technique:
- Lie on your back and elevate your head on a yoga block or stack of books or magazines, so that the back of your neck is lengthened.
- Place two massage balls behind your neck and slowly nod your head up and down to massage the muscles on the back of your neck.
A slouching or “forward head posture” position when sitting or standing shortens and tightens the muscles in the back of your neck. A lot of times, you can relieve neck pain and tension by lengthening the back of the neck and massaging the muscles.
The video above has a detailed explanation of how bad posture can contribute to tension headaches as well as how to massage your beck.
Here’s a simple way to massage the back of your neck: peanut massage ball
- Lie on the floor and place a peanut massage ball (or two equal-sized balls) behind the base of your head.
- Slowly move your head side to side like you’re saying “no,” and then nod up and down like you’re saying “yes.”
All-round Neck Massage
When you need to release the sides of your neck and tops of your shoulders, you’ll know because your shoulders will creep up toward your ears and you’ll feel pain or tightness at the base of your neck on either side.
This is common in people who cradle a phone between their head and shoulder, but it also happens when you frequently hold positions with your arms raised straight in front of you, like at a keyboard or when you’re driving. Here’s a simple and intuitive way to release this tension:
- Hold a massage ball in your hand.
- Use the ball to massage the opposite side of your neck, down to the top of your shoulder, gently applying pressure with small rolling movements.
- If you find a tender area hold the ball on the area for at least 30 seconds before moving onto the next spot.
Watch the video above to learn how to use this method effectively.
Shoulders and Upper Traps
The upper traps, which are the muscles between your shoulder blades in your upper back, are one of the commonly tight areas in the body. Once again, it affects many people who work at a desk and it is the place that holds a lot of tension due to everyday stress.
Massage canes and massage balls work well for massaging your shoulders and upper traps.
Massage Cane Technique for Upper Traps
- Using a massage cane like the TheraCane, hook the tool around your shoulder and hold the straight end of the stick.
- Massage small trigger points in your rotator cuff (the tendons in your shoulder joint) by leveraging the stick, digging into trigger points that feel tender.
- Hook the cane around your shoulder the opposite way to reach the backs of your shoulders and around your shoulder blades.
The video above shows you how to release the upper traps using a Thera Cane.
Massage Ball Technique for Shoulders/Upper Traps
For this technique, you’ll need a good-sized wall and a massage ball.
- With the side of your body facing a wall, place a massage ball on the side of your shoulder.
- Make small micromovements to massage the muscle tissue.
- Face the wall front-on to release the muscles in the front of your shoulder.
- Turn and face away from the wall to target the back of your shoulder and down the shoulder blade.
Wrists, Forearms and Elbow
If you spend a chunk of the day at a computer on a daily basis, you can easily wind up with wrist tension.
Release Wrist Tension with Massage Balls or a Peanut Ball
- Place a peanut ball or two massage balls tied inside a sock on a table.
- Place your forearm in the crevice between the two balls and roll it down the length of your forearm, from your hand to your elbow.
- Place the front of your wrist on the balls, with your palm facing up. Clasp your hand with your other hand, interlacing the fingers. Pull your hand forward and back, bending at the wrist.
Chest and Pecs
Your chest muscles are made up of your pectoralis major in the centre of your chest and pectoralis minor on either side next to your armpits.
While the chest may not be a direct source of muscle pain, tightness in the chest plays a role in back and posture problems.
When your pec muscles are tight, it causes the upper back muscles that oppose them to lengthen and become underutilized.
The problem is, you need these muscles to keep your back straight upright and aligned, and when they’re weak, you end up slouching. Slouching, in turn, shortens the chest muscles and it becomes a vicious cycle of muscle imbalance.
Releasing chest tension and stretching the pecs helps open your chest and shorten the back muscles responsible for keeping your shoulders and neck upright and aligned. This process will dramatically improve your posture and help prevent what is known as upper crossed syndrome.
Pec Major Release
The Pec Major makes up the largest area of your pec muscle and is therefore relatively easy to massage. You can massage the pec major using a massage ball in your hand, or you can use a wall as shown in the video above for greater pressure.
To release the pec major:
- Face a wall with a massage ball.
- Roll the ball to massage the front of your rib cage, under your collar bone, on either side.
- Pause at any point that is more tender and use small micromovements to release the trigger point.
Pec Minor Release
The Pec Minor, unlike the Pec Major, is much more difficult to release as it is hidden off to the side of the torso. Although it is the smaller pec muscle, if it gets tight it can cause major postural dysfunctions such as rounded shoulders.
It’s a good idea to watch the video above as it shows you where the pec minor is located and a few release techniques to help loosen it up.
One way to release the pec minor is by using a massage ball and the floor.
- Lay on a mat with your stomach facing downward.
- Place massage ball directly beneath your pec minor and use your body weight to apply pressure.
- If this is too intense and painful at first, start by doing this same movement against a wall.
Upper Back and Lats
The best way to release upper back tension and massage your lats is by using a foam roller.
First, we’ll look at how to foam roll the upper back.
This exercise targets your rhomboids and traps, and also helps you open up your chest and improve your posture:
- Lay on your back with your knees bent and a foam roller under your upper back and shoulders.
- Raise your arms overhead and cradle your head in your hands.
- Lift your hips off the floor and push off with your legs to roll up and down on the foam roller.
This foam rolling technique zeroes in on your lats, which are one of the largest muscle groups in your back.
- Lay on one side, with the foam roller under your armpit.
- Roll down your ribcage and then return back to your armpit to massage the length of your lats.
- When you find a tight trigger point, stay on that spot and make small movements leaning your chest forward and back without rolling the foam roller.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Be careful with the amount of pressure you apply when rolling down the bottom of your lats as the rib cage can be quite fragile.
Lower back pain is incredibly common. Strengthening your lower back with exercises that target the muscles around your lumbar spine often help.
Sometimes, the pain is caused by PMS in women, or from posture imbalances such an Anterior pelvic tilt. While it’s hard to massage with your hands, the lower back is fairly easy to massage with the right tools.
Massage Ball Technique on the Floor
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place two massage balls or double lacrosse ball under your lower back where your sacrum meets your hip bone.
- Roll the massage balls along your lower back by doing a pelvic tilt and slightly swaying your hips side to side.
- You can also play around with the balls by moving them further apart and closer together to find what feels good.
Massage Ball against the Wall
You can also use the same process as above using a wall rather than the floor. This may be a better option for people with mobility issues. Using a wall you will also have greater control than if you used the floor.
Massage Cane Technique
A massage cane can also be used to target trigger points on your back.
- Using a massage cane like the TheraCane or Body Back Buddy, hook the cane around your waist.
- Reach your lower back muscles with the knob at the end of the hook.
- Press into one trigger point at a time, going down along one side of your spine, then repeat on the opposite side.
Glutes and Hips
The pelvic area tends to get tight from a lot of sitting. Whether it’s a source of pain or not, it needs your attention so it can stay healthy, flexible and in good alignment with your body.
Releasing your glutes helps loosen up your hips and increase their range of motion. Since your glutes and hips play a huge roll in stability, it’s important to keep these muscles healthy, especially as you age.
Foam Rolling Your Glutes
- Get on the floor with a foam roller under your right buttocks.
- Bend your right leg and place your right ankle on your left knee so that your right hip is open.
- Roll the foam roller under your glute by slowly gliding up and down.
Massaging Your Glutes with a Ball
If you find that a foam roller isn’t giving you enough ‘release’ you can go for something smaller such as a massage ball.
- Lie down on your back with a massage ball under your buttocks. If you have two massage balls, you can put one on each side. Otherwise, do one side at a time.
- Bend your knees and put the soles of your feet together, opening your hips into a diamond shape.
- Roll the ball around your glute and along your hip abductors by rocking your hips side to side or in a circular motion.
Calf tightness is common in athletes, people who do a lot of sitting at desks, and in women who frequently wear high heels.
Your lower legs are required to pump blood upwards against the weight of gravity, so releasing tight calf muscles can help improve circulation throughout your body.
Foam Rolling Your Calves
- Sit on the floor with one knee bent. Stretch out the other leg in front of you, with a foam roller under the calf.
- Lift your hips and hold yourself up with your hands placed right behind your buttocks.
- Slide your hips forward and backwards to roll along the length of the calf with the foam roller .
- To add more intensity, stretch your other leg in front of you and cross it over the rolling leg.
Releasing Calves using a Massage Cane
If you find a foam roller isn’t effective enough you can use a massage ball or get creative and use a Thera Cane as in the video below.
For a more general massage for your calves, you could also use a muscle roller stick. These are particularly useful for runners.
The video above shows you how to use a muscle roller stick.
Like your calves, your feet also play a key role in the circulation of blood.
Massaging your feet can improve blood flow in your entire body, and it has an immediate relaxation effect. If you have plantar fasciitis or poor and foot mobility, massaging your feet can be helpful.
How to Massage Your Feet with a Massage Ball
- Drop a ball onto the floor and from a sitting or standing position, roll the sole of your foot on the ball.
- Try forward and backwards and side to side movements to massage your foot.
If you prefer, there are also electric foot massagers that can perform the same technique without you having to do any work.
Tips and Best Practices for Self-Massage
When you massage your muscles with self-massage tools on a regular basis, it should become less painful over time, as your muscle tissue heals.
In the short term, however, myofascial release can be quite painful and may result in muscle soreness the next day. Don’t push yourself too hard too quickly. For the best results, do just a little each day, especially at the beginning.
Strength training your muscles and correcting muscle imbalances are often other parts of the equation to muscle pain relief, so massage alone may not be enough.
If you suspect your pain may be caused by an injury or a serious condition, be sure to consult with a doctor to find out exactly what’s going on.
Muscle tightness should never be ignored. If your back or neck is consistently tight, it will eventually lead to pain if it hasn’t already.
Hopefully, this article has equipped you with the knowledge on how you can start taking care of muscle tension.
Doing so will not only keep the pain away, but also improve your mood, mental clarity and energy levels.