Trigger Point Therapy: What is a Trigger Point and How to Release One Effectively

You may have heard the term trigger point thrown around more and more these days, but what is a trigger point?

To get to the other side of muscle tightness and pain, it helps if you can identify a trigger point and know how to release it. This is why you must learn all you can about trigger points especially if you suffer from muscle tightness and aches.

In this post, you’ll learn exactly what a trigger point is, how it can arise, and what it means to release it.

Then, we’ll look at the best tools for releasing trigger points, and how to prevent them from forming in the first place.

What’s a Trigger Point?

A trigger point is a small “knot,” or inflamed tight ball, that forms within the fibres of a muscle’s fascia [1, 2].

Fascia is the thin membrane-like sheet of tissue surrounding each muscle that keeps it separate from bone, organs and other muscles.

A trigger point is different from a sore or tight muscle because of its small size and being localized in the muscle’s fascia. It feels tender and painful when pressed on.

It can also cause referred pain, which is pain it creates in a separate area. For example, trigger points on the neck and shoulders can often translate to headaches [3].

What Causes a Trigger Point to Arise?

A muscle’s fascia doesn’t develop contraction knots in isolation from the muscle, as the two are inseparably connected.

Trigger points are often called “myofascial trigger points,” with the term “myofascial” implying that both the fascia and the muscle beneath it are contributing to the acute pain. When a muscle is strained, injured or overused, the fibres in the muscle itself become inflamed, and so do the fibres in the muscle’s fascia.

In fact, a German physician in 1843 coined the term “muskelshwiele” (muscle callouses) in describing “calluses” within the fascia that form on muscles. In 1904, the medical community discovered that inflammation was the source of these hard nodules.

While the topic is still being researched, today we know that trigger points form in muscles that are overworked for long periods, causing them to become taut and strained.

The “knots” that result are spots with increased contraction, where blood flow has become restricted. Because of the tight contraction of fibres, capillaries that normally deliver oxygen and nutrients, are closed down.

Metabolic waste like lactic acid can’t be transported out of the muscles, which results in inflammation and pain [4].

Why Do So Many of Us Develop Trigger Points and Myofascial Pain?

Myofascial pain is a widespread phenomenon and a cause for many doctor visits. Virtually everyone has experienced trigger points caused by acute strain, and it resolves on its own in a few weeks.

Many adults, however, have trigger points that developed over months or years of lifestyle habits involving unnatural and incorrect postural alignment.

Often, these trigger points are associated with chronic pain, whether connected to low back pain, shoulder impingement, headaches or other problems.

When your musculoskeletal system is in correct alignment, all your muscles can perform with minimal effort. With misalignment, some muscles take on extra work and become subject to strain, leading to painful trigger points.

The most common lifestyle habits causing muscle strain and trigger points are:

  • Forward Head Posture (“Text Neck”) – strain in the back and sides of your neck and base of your skull. It’s caused by holding your head in a forward position such as when craning your neck while texting or using a laptop. Your head is meant to be stabilized over your upper body. When it’s out of alignment, your neck muscles bear more weight than they should and become strained.
  • Rounded Shoulders and Hunched Upper Back – Working at a laptop with your upper body rounded and your arms in front of you, the muscles in your chest become shortened and contracted, while the muscles in your upper back get overstretched. This curvature strains the muscles that support your spine.
  • Slouching in Chairs – Whether you’re sitting on a subway or in a work meeting, chances are, you’re slouching. Most chairs don’t provide lower back support or support the natural curvature of the spine—they’re simply straight, which makes you want to lean against it in a rounded position instead of using it as support.
  • Long Periods of Driving – Holding your arms out in front of you at the steering wheel for long drives can strain the upper back as it curves outward. It also can strain the upper trap muscles between your neck and shoulders, because they become shortened and tight with your arms up for long periods.

How Can You Tell You Have a Trigger Point?

One way to detect trigger points is to get a massage or use a tool for self-massage. Areas that feel more painful when massaged with the same amount of pressure are trigger points.

They feel very painful when pressed because the tissue is inflamed.

If you suffer from chronic pain of any sort, such as back pain, neck pain, headaches, tendinitis, rotator cuff (shoulder) pain, jaw pain, you most likely have trigger points associated with the pain.

If you have a painful condition like arthritis, bulging discs, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome of sciatica, chances are, you have trigger points [3].

They rarely occur in isolation, so if you find one, you’ll often find a cluster of them in a given area, such as on the same muscle. Stiffness is another clue that points to trigger points, because inflamed, oxygen-starved tissue starts to firm up and have reduced mobility.

Trigger Point Therapy: What it Means to Release a Trigger Point

While trigger point “release” sounds like you can switch off your trigger points like the push of a button, trigger point therapy isn’t an instant fix.

Releasing a trigger point means softening the hardened, inflamed tissue by compressing and penetrating the contracted fibres. It allows fluids to re-enter the site to heal the tissue and restore balance.

You do this simply by pressing into the trigger point directly, and by rubbing and kneading it. 

The process should feel intuitive as you listen to your body and find what feels right. When you find a point that is more sensitive, you’ve most likely found a trigger point, and can apply the amount of pressure needed to loosen it up.

The general idea is that you apply pressure on the trigger point (using your hand or a tool) for at least 30 seconds or until the discomfort subsides.

You can sometimes feel it loosen or “release,” because restored blood flow will help improve muscle lubrication and mobility in the area [5].

However, it typically will feel painful while compressing and kneading the trigger point, and only feel better after you’ve released the pressure. Although pain is normal, don’t overdo it. More pressure and pain does not equal faster results [6].

Sometimes, it gets worse before it gets better.

If you’ve ever experienced soreness after a massage, it’s because the body is working to flush out a buildup of lactic acid in tissues. Aside from normal muscle soreness that goes away, if you experience worsened pain from any attempted trigger point therapy, be sure to take a break, try more gently, or consult with a physician.

The Benefits of Trigger Point Therapy According to Science

The scientific community has investigated trigger point therapy and reported several measurable benefits it studies, including:

  • Improved Circulation – By restoring blood flow in a trigger point’s localized area of contraction, trigger point therapy helps re-open closed capillaries and improve overall circulation.
  • Enhanced Range of Motion – Healing the fascia through trigger point therapy helps lubricate muscles that are stiff, improving your range of motion.
  • Increased Sense of Well-being – The mind and body are connected. With less tension in the body, you feel less stress. By being able to relax physically, you can better relax and unwind mentally.
  • Promotes Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity – your parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system that deals with your “fight or flight” mode, is responsible for healing and repair. Trigger point release is shown in studies to increase the activity of this system, causing quicker recovery in cases of pain [7].

Trigger Point and Self Massage Release Tools

Trigger point release tools have been designed by scientists, chiropractors and physical therapists alike, who aim to mimic the work of a masseuse with a tool that’s easy to use on your own.

Because trigger points can occur all over the body, some are harder to reach than others, and some are located deeper than others. This is why you need to have tools of all sizes, densities and shapes.

Thanks to continually emerging technology, your options for trigger point therapy are quite diverse. Generally, they’re small tools, either motorized or not, that can get deep into tight muscle tissue for trigger point release.

Here’s an overview of the types of products effective for trigger point release:

  • Foam rollers – Foam rollers are cylindrically shaped devices that you roll on top of to target trigger points. These are one of the most basic myofascial release tool and great for beginners.
  • Massage Balls – You can use a small ball to push into a trigger point or roll in small motions on it. You can find massage balls in different sizes and with various textures.
  • Massage Canes – Massage canes like the Body Back Buddy are cane-shaped tools with knobs at the ends. When you hook a massage cane around your arm, leg, shoulder, torso or foot, you can leverage the cane to press into a trigger point and release it.
  • Percussion Massagers and Massage Guns – These are hand-held electric massagers that provide short, fast pulses that penetrate deep into soft tissues to release trigger points. Massage guns like the Theragun G3 also utilize percussion, but have a gun-like grip, as opposed to the wand-like design of a percussion massager like the PureWave CM-07.

How to Prevent Trigger Points from Occurring

Trigger points aren’t totally preventable.

Life puts us in unnatural positions, and things like holding your child, carrying a heavy bag while travelling or over-doing it in a tennis match can cause trigger points to form.

However, you can generally prevent the worst trigger points, which develop over years of holding an unnatural position for hours a day.

Here are some tips for trigger point prevention:

  • Sit at your desk with your feet flat on the floor and your back fully supported.
  • When using a computer, use a keyboard on a keyboard tray that sits just above your lap. This way, your shoulders can relax down instead of straining to hold your arms up.
  • Move around after 20 minutes of being stationary in any position.
  • Strengthen your back muscles so they can support your spine and prevent trigger point formation on your back.
  • Use a foam roller or percussion massager before high-intensity exercise or sports to loosen tight muscles. Vigorous activity with tight muscles can easily result in strain and trigger point formation.
  • Engage in at least 30 minutes of relaxing activity each day to manage stress.

Trigger points are something most people experience.

Those who know how to detect trigger points and help restore the muscle tissue can avoid a lot of the pain that so many endure.

Being able to release trigger points saves you money spent on professional masseuses and potentially even on medical bills.

Beyond that, it helps you get in tune with your body so you can intuitively respond to tension and pain in a healthy way.

A great place to start is to learn how to release trigger points over your entire body, to learn how to do this, see our post on self-massage techniques for the whole body.

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