Trigger points – what are they?

Trigger points are the most common source of muscle pain. There are many factors that affect a trigger point and for best results they should all be identified.

I’m going to put a wild bet out there that everyone has a trigger point in at least one muscle of their body. Some have more than others. Who of you are regularly rubbing their shoulders or elbows? More and more we are sitting at the computer or looking down at our phones (sorry for writing this blog) causing prolonged tension on muscles around the neck and shoulder, resulting in the development of trigger points.

What is a Trigger point?

It is defined as a hypersensitive palpable nodule in taut bands of muscle fibers. Meaning very small bundles of muscle fiber have become contracted/”knotted” due to a chemical imbalance within the tissue.  The area is very painful and can cause you to jump or cramp on palpation. It can cause referred pain, weakness and restriction through movement. Which makes doing normal activities and training difficult.

Triger Point diagram
Diagram of trigger points within a muscle

Trigger points of individual muscles have a very specific referred pain pattern and can mimic other problems. For example pain in the forearm and wrist can be referred from Infraspinatus, a shoulder muscle. Without a detailed assessment and clearing other areas this could be misconceived as a tennis elbow.

What causes a trigger point?

A TP can be brought on in a number of ways. 

  • Poor postures held for a prolonged period, causing certain muscles to work harder while trying to support structures like the head, eventually causing TP’s.
  • Repetitive strain on muscles from overuse over multiple days, weeks and months. How many clicks of the mouse or typing are your doing? How much swiping of the smartphone? These repetitive movements take their toll.
  • Emotional stress and poor sleep can cause muscle tension. Particularly the neck and shoulder muscles.
  • A lack of movement will develop TP’s when sitting or on bed rest for a prolonged time.
  • Heavy lifting can cause the development of TP’s when the muscle is placed under excessive loads which it is not familiar with.
  • Trauma to a muscle, either as a reflex to pain or overcompensating for the weak and injured structure. This is quite common with car accidents or sports injuries.

Our muscles sit within a biochemical “soup” of  hormones, nerve transmitters and chemicals, all affecting the PH and Oxygen levels of the tissue. Your body knows the perfect recipe to keep everything balanced, but when we overload it with one or more of the above, it causes changes to the recipe, resulting in a drop in PH (becoming more acidic) and reduces the oxygen supply. This leads to the development of TP’s.

How do we treat a trigger point?

Your desire to change must be greater than your desire to stay the same. 

The following treatments for trigger points will help settle them down, but if we provide the same environment they will return.

  • Trigger point release – sustained manual pressure applied to the trigger point causes increased blood flow to remove toxins from the area, interrupts the pattern of pain and spasm and encourages the production of natural pain relieving endorphin’s.
  • Trigger point dry needling – There is a growing evidence base for trigger point dry needling. The needling causes local twitch responses which are a central nervous system reflex. This helps disrupt the pain feedback loop but also reset the acidic biochemical “soup” the muscle is sitting in, back to its normal levels.
  • Myofascial release – the surrounding tight myofascial tissue that feeds into and over the trigger points could also be restricted, causing further exacerbation of the area. Using this technique will give some length back to these structures and can alleviate the trigger point.

Once the hands on therapy has been applied it is not the end of treatment. The muscles with the TP’s will need to be stretched to help prevent their return. Postural correction and stability exercises for surrounding muscles may need to be followed. Changes ergonomically may need to be enforced to prevent falling back into poor habits. Also looking at ways of alleviating stress through improved sleep, meditation, breathing techniques and increase of general exercise.

All of these factors will need to be considered to provide long lasting benefit and avoid their return.

  1. Travell & Simon (1999). Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual
  2. Shah et al (2008) Uncovering the biochemical milieu of myofascial trigger points using in vivo microdialysis: An application of muscle pain concepts to myofascial pain syndrome. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
  3. Simons, (2008), New Views of Myofascial Trigger Points: Etiology and Diagnosis, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Author: Graeme Lawson

With more than 13 years working both in the UK and New Zealand, Graeme offers a vast amount of experience and knowledge when treating musculoskeletal conditions. Being part of various clubs on the grass roots level to international with the England Volleyball team he has developed a broad skill set. His patient’s see exceptional results from a progressive blend of hands on manual therapy, education and exercise prescription. Catering from the home and work related injuries to athletes from novice to elite levels. Graeme’s outlook is the same with all who visit, that prevention is better than the cure. While providing a variety of hands-on treatments, he knows how important it is to offer education, preventative advice and tailored exercises to continue long after you have been discharged, helping avoid injuries in the future. For pastimes he has played basketball over the last couple of decades at different national levels. Graeme has also been doing CrossFit for 6 years. Having both the knowledge and ability of these technical movements provides athletes confidence with the advice they receive.

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