What are trigger points?
If you’ve ever felt a ‘knot’ in your shoulder and dug in with your fingers to find both tension and relief, then the chances are you’ve found a trigger point – a knot of connective tissue that is tender to the touch and causes pain or other symptoms.
The effects of a trigger point may be felt either where the trigger point is located or elsewhere in the body – this is called ‘referred pain’. It is the possibility of these, sometimes surprising, referred symptoms that mean trigger points can be overlooked medically and sometimes misdiagnosed as a better-known medical condition.
Trigger points can be found most commonly in the soft tissues of the body – the muscles and fascia, the connective tissue, although they can also form in ligaments, tendons and nerves. Some can be as large as a golf ball, while others are as tiny as a grain of sand.
Trigger points are usually associated with pain, although they can also produce a wide range of other symptoms including problems with vision, sleep, co-ordination, and balance.
Nearly everyone experiences symptoms from trigger points at some time in their lives. The causes of trigger points can be due to trauma, such as an accident or surgery; overworked muscles through work or sport; or the simple wear and tear of daily living.
Once you know about the typical patterns of pain and other symptoms caused by specific trigger points, it is simple to start to treat yourself and to undo the restrictions that have caused your trigger points to form. Regular self-care can address existing trigger points and prevent new ones from forming.
Some general self-care principles to follow include:
Get the feel for trigger points – they can vary in size but they will always feel tender to the touch and may also cause referred pain or twitching.
Little and often is best – if you try to do too much too soon, this can lead to irritation and more pain in the short-term.
Stretch after treatment – this helps the muscles return to a relaxed state and prolongs the benefits.
Trigger points respond best to gentle sustained pressure which helps them to release. You can do this using your fingers or thumbs for some areas, but it’s often easier to work with trigger point balls or other tools that have been designed for the job.
Knowing where to locate the trigger points you want to treat can be tricky at first but using a good trigger point book will help as it provides ‘body maps’ of common trigger point locations and their referral patterns, as well as helpful suggestions about how to treat specific points.