Myofascial trigger points, commonly referred to as “muscle knots” have unique characteristics that explain why they cause pain, muscle dysfunction, muscle weakness, and limited range of motion.
Understanding and research devoted to trigger points has seen huge growth recently which allows us to know more about them now that ever before. By recognizing the traits of a trigger point you’ll have a better idea of if they’re affecting you and how they may be contributing to pain, injuries, or conditions that you have. In this content, I’ll explore the details of trigger points that will give your clarity of “What is a trigger point?”
What is a Trigger Point?
To explain “What is a trigger point”, it’s best to look at the specific characteristics of trigger points and how they are unique. Understanding what a trigger point is and why it is problematic is the first step in figuring out the best way to address them and prevent them. Take a look at some of the qualities of a trigger point below:
- A trigger point is a taut band of skeletal muscle.
- Skeletal muscle tissue is muscle tissue that can be voluntarily controlled by your nervous system. Skeletal muscles are made up of millions of fibers that shorten and lengthen in order to contract and move your body. Most the muscles you’re familiar with are skeletal muscles, for example, your upper trapezius is skeletal muscle.
- Fibers within a skeletal muscle are grouped into small units, you can see this when you shred chicken. The little ropes that come apart when you shred chicken are units (or groups) of muscle fibers. In a trigger point, one or more of these units are taut, rigid, stressed, and not loose. Trigger points can also be found in fascia (connective tissue) but more on that another time.
A photo to help you understand a trigger point. This shows trigger points in the upper trapezius muscle which is one of the most common and uncomfortable trigger points.
- Active trigger points produce pain in the trigger point area or pain that is referred to another area.
- Active trigger points are tender and produce a feeling of discomfort in a specific area of a muscle. They can also refer pain or discomfort to other areas in the same muscle or even in areas outside that muscle.
- A good example of a trigger point that can do this is an upper trapezius muscle trigger point. Frequently these trigger points will refer pain into the neck or the back of the head.
- Trigger points can cause muscle dysfunction, muscle weakness, and limited range of motion.
- If you have an active trigger point you have a unit of muscle that’s in a hypercontracted state. Healthy muscles contract and relax as they’re designed to which is what give the muscle strength and allows full range of motion. Trigger points can cause your muscle to stay tight constantly, doesn’t allow it to draw on its full length for strength, and can limit muscle, joint, or global range of motion.
- Trigger points lack proper blood flow and oxygen.
- Trigger points are “sick muscles.” Since they’re not functioning how they were designed they’re not getting normal blood flow which prevents them from getting the right amount of oxygenated blood. For this reason, your trigger point tends to stay a trigger point unless it’s treated.
- Your trigger points are hyperirritable.
- In comparison to healthy muscle fibers, trigger points are much more sensitive and irritated. This means that they can tolerate less pressure and stimulation than they should be able to. Often times even light touch over a trigger point can cause local or referred pain and discomfort. This is a neurological phenomenon that occurs in the brain and spinal cord where it takes a lower threshold of stimulation to make them uncomfortable compared to a normal area of skeletal muscle tissue.
Want to read more in-depth content on myofascial trigger points and the history and research? Here’s a great review of the content from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation –> Myofascial Trigger Points Then and Now: A Historical and Scientific Perspective
Do you think you have trigger points and they are causing you pain? Or maybe you feel like trigger points are somewhat involved in an injury you’re struggling with?
Dry Needling is one of the best treatment strategies for addressing trigger points. See some of my content on dry needling for various injuries below!
To see a collection of all my content on dry needling, check out the dry needling section of the blog here –> Dry Needling Blog Content
Dr. Jason Williams DC is a chiropractic physician practicing at AccessHealth Chiropractic in Cary, NC. He treats neuromusculoskeletal pain and injuries using chiropractic manipulation, dry needling, acupuncture, rehab exercise strategies, and other supportive therapies. Primary areas of focus include back pain, neck pain, muscular pain, extremity pain, and orthopedic injuries. Dr. Williams is experienced in treating athletes, especially those in the CrossFit, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and MMA community.
If you’re interested in whether he or another AccessHealth provider can help you, navigate to our contact page or follow this link to request an appointment.