Trigger points — those tight little knots in the skeletal muscles of your body — can trick you. They often hurt and don’t go away in a few days or a week, even after you apply the usual home remedies, such as pain relievers, ice, gentle stretching, an Epsom salt bath and a period of rest.
This is because it’s common for the pain or stiffness to migrate to a nearby location in your body a few days later. Some trigger points are large enough to feel when you rub them and painful enough to make your normal range of motion difficult or impossible. Even the smallest trigger points deep in the muscle tissue, identifiable only by tightness or tenderness, can cause problems. If left untreated, trigger points can range from minor annoyances to major pain and restrictions in your range of motion. Nobody likes them, but most athletes have to deal with trigger points sooner or later.
According to Donna Finando, author of “Trigger Point Self-Care Manual: For Pain-Free Movement,” two common causes of trigger points are overuse, such as making repetitive motions, and overload, such as lifting something too heavy. Most athletes perform actions like these all the time, and many develop painful trigger points. Home remedies provide temporary relief but seldom smooth out the knots permanently. Your next step may be getting help for these pesky problems.
Professional treatment for trigger points includes massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, injections and other types of bodywork. All of these treatments will usually release the knot and make the muscle relatively smooth again, but they take time, money and patience. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way for you to release your own knots as soon as you notice them? It would be even greater if you could prevent most trigger points from developing in the first place. Can you really take preemptive action to keep your muscles smooth, elastic and pain-free?
You can probably learn to tame most of your current trigger points and then prevent others from occurring or at least from causing big trouble. However, you have to be willing to cause yourself some discomfort or even pain for the first week or two, and you have to work on the trigger points consistently — preferably every day. It’s a little like flossing your teeth. When you first start flossing, or resume after several days off, that sharp little strand of floss can hurt and may cause your gums to bleed. But soon you’re back to where your dentist wants you to be: reducing inflammation and improving overall wellbeing. Not many people love working on their trigger points, but some do it as their only therapy. Others do it in between professional treatments.
Practicing trigger point self-therapy takes a little bit of equipment and some knowledge. You can choose among toolkits — many are available to buy online or at local running or biking shops. You can also watch any number of trigger point videos on YouTube. A dimpled (no-seam) softball or a couple of tennis balls works great for gentle work. Lacrosse balls or a foam roller are better for harder work.
When you’re ready to get to work, you may find that your piriformis or one of your gluteus muscles is tight or tender, as it is for most runners. You can start with a soft racquetball for a few days; when the pain lessens, move to a larger, slightly harder tennis ball. Then use a hard lacrosse ball for a while. If it’s possible after that, you can use a big, hard softball or a hard roller as a preventive tool. However, never use those as the first attack on a painful trigger point that is already inflamed. It can be painful to subject a highly tender trigger point to an advanced amount of pressure.
Once you’ve experimented for a few weeks with inexpensive equipment and YouTube videos, you’ll be in a better position to decide which type of help — professional help or toolkits — is best for you.
You may not be able to regain the supple, fluid feeling of childhood, but there’s no reason to live with pain and restricted movement. Taming your trigger points can help you keep doing the sports you love.
Keep these principles in mind for home trigger point therapy:
Even if you’re in pain, keep on breathing. Richly oxygenated blood does a better job of removing toxins from tight, restricted muscles.
Make sure you are well hydrated.
Water helps lubricate the muscles.
Do your best to relax your entire body.
Focus on relaxing specifically the muscle containing the knot. Find a warmer room to work in and keep on breathing. Music can also help you to stay relaxed.
Be gentle at first.
Apply compression with a ball or roller directly to the tender spot. Lean against a wall or sit on the floor to put enough pressure on the trigger point. If the pain feels too harsh, back off and try a gentler technique.
For most trigger point work, it’s usually a good idea to alternate between still pressure and pressure in motion.
For example: Place a ball on the floor and practice sitting on it between the bony areas, first on one side and then on the other. Sit still for several seconds. Then move side to side and back and forth for several seconds.