When patients report pain to their doctors, the root cause of pain is rarely diagnosed correctly. Probably because as many as 3 of every 4 instances of pain are directly attributable to tiny contraction knots in muscle tissue most doctors are never trained to recognize called myofascial trigger points.
Although studied since the 1930s, it was President John F. Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. Janet Travell, who brought widespread attention to trigger points. Using her knowledge of them she was able to successfully treat the future President’s crippling myofascial pain.
How trigger points cause pain
Muscles can only move as millions of microscopic “pumps” in the muscle fiber called sarcomeres contract and interlock (to tighten) or release (to relax). Injury or overworking a muscle area can cause a group of sarcomeres to become over stimulated and unable to release — causing a small knot in that portion of the muscle tissue.
When sarcomeres become stuck in this contracted position, they no longer pump blood through the capillaries in the surrounding area. This results in oxygen starvation and a buildup of waste products. Pain signals are generated from the trigger point to signal an issue… but the pain is often felt far from the actual trigger point. This referred pain is a hallmark of trigger points.
How to stop pain from trigger points
Eliminating trigger points is a matter of first understanding how they refer pain so the original source can be identified. Then, by applying deep sustained pressure to the knotted area the body is able to undergo soft tissue release.
As the trigger point relaxes blood flow is restored allowing re-oxygenation of the area and removal of wastes. This also causes a neurological release, reducing pain signals to the brain.
Massage therapy vs. self therapy for trigger points
Modern day massage therapists use techniques learned from Dr. Travell’s trigger point research. But there are problems with massage therapy in treating trigger points.
Straight from the mouth of a massage therapist, massage can be an expensive temporary fix for trigger points. Even then you may have to wait for days or weeks to get in. And there is no guarantee you’ll even feel better afterwards since aggressive deep tissue massage creates micro-tears in muscles causing some patients even more pain.
Fortunately with a little education most people can successfully treat their own trigger points. Dr. Travell and her long time colleage Dr. David Simons published an excellent medical text on trigger points called Myofascial Pain & Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Other trigger point self treatment systems put the concepts of trigger point therapy into layman’s terms and provide simple devices to achieve the deep massage needed to relieve trigger point tension, finally making pain relief accessible for just about anybody.