Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, it doesn’t mean you don’t have them. Everybody has trigger points. Some people carry big nasty ones that cause chronic pain while other people sneak by with dormant ones that only occasionally flare up. But even people with debilitating pain aren’t always aware that some, if not most, of their pain originates with trigger points.
That’s because trigger points are sneaky and commonly misdiagnosed. Headaches and jaw pain may start with trigger points in the neck and shoulders. Trigger points in the forearm and armpit mimic carpal tunnel syndrome. Leg pain often originates with trigger points in the buttocks. Trigger points cause pain, mimic pain, and add more pain to already painful conditions.
Myofascial trigger points are muscle “knots” that refer pain to other areas of the body. They are not actually knots, but instead small areas of constricted muscle tissue. They often go unnoticed until pressure is applied directly. Trigger points won’t always hurt in the place where they are located. Usually they will refer pain to other areas of the body. When pressure is applied to a trigger point, the pain radiates out or up and away. Press the right spot and pain may shoot out like a lightning bolt.
But shooting or radiating pain is a good thing. It’s a sign that a trigger point has been located and that is the first step in releasing it. You can try it for yourself. Locate one of your sternocleidomastoid muscles. It’s a big word for the stringy muscle that stretches from behind your jaw bone and down either side of your throat (the name refers to the bones the muscle attaches to: the sternum, clavicle, and mastoid process).
Now take it between your thumb and index finger and squeeze. Work your way down the muscle from jaw to chest. Apply as much pressure as you can handle. If you find a spot that sends pain up into your neck, jaw or head, then you’ve found a trigger point. It should feel painful but good at the same time. Hold that spot until the pain starts to subside (usually in the range of 5 to 30 seconds).
You just released a trigger point, or at least started the process. And if you were experiencing jaw or head pain, you might have released a bit of that too. Most people are surprised by how tender their sternocleidomastoid feels. Trigger points like that hang out all over the body. Releasing trigger points relieves pain. You can use your thumbs, tennis balls, or tools specifically designed for applying pressure to trigger points. All trigger points are the same: apply pressure, hold, and release (and sometimes repeat).
If you are having trouble finding or experiencing the release of trigger points, then come in for a chair or table massage. As a massage therapist, I usually try to work on at least a few common trigger points with every client. And when there are specific complaints of pain, trigger points are the first places I check. Releasing trigger points isn’t a magical cure for pain, but it does sometimes come close.