“Trigger Point” is a buzzword that you might hear a lot if you get massage or chiropractic care, but what is a trigger point exactly? Let’s go to the source. Travell and Simons, the guys who coined the term, defined it as “a focus of hyper-irritability in a tissue that, when compressed, is locally tender and, is sufficiently hypersensitive, gives a rise to referred pain and tenderness, and sometimes to referred autonomic phenomena and distortion of proprioception.”
Whew. So what does all that mean? First off, how do trigger points develop? When you have changes in normal soft tissue starting with excess muscle tension (hypertonicity), excess metabolic waste in your muscles and ischemia (an inadequate blood supply to an organ or part of the body), which, if they persist, disturb the functioning of the actual muscle fibers. This is a recipe for our enemy, the trigger point. When your muscles are in this condition, there is an increase in excitation to the spinal cord (a lot of stimulus), and facilitation of the related spinal segment. In other words, after a trigger point develops in your muscle, it creates a hypersensitive reflex arc between the spinal cord, the brain and the part of the muscle that is not able to relax. The spinal cord excitation that I mentioned earlier then spills over to adjacent segments, causing the related muscles to tighten up, resulting in further symptoms.
There are a few different types of trigger points, and I will go over the most common:
Active: always tender, prevents full lengthening of a muscle, weakens the muscle and produces referred pain.
-active primary: caused by acute or chronic overload of a muscle
-active secondary: trigger points that become active due to their relation to a muscle containing a primary trigger point
-satellite: a trigger point that became active due to the muscle being in a zone of reference of another muscle’s trigger point
2. Latent: Trigger point that may be painful when pressed but have no referred pain pattern
Here is a short list of trigger point causes: increased mechanical strain, overuse, repetition or misuse of a muscle, ischemia, local inflammatory response to physical trauma, disuse or prolonged immobility (decreases circulation), and mental/emotional stress- prolonged sympathetic nervous system arousal can lead to a trigger point.
Luckily for you, there is a treatment protocol for trigger points that your massage therapist can use to treat you. It’s a very specific protocol that requires clear communication with your therapist. After your trigger point has been released by your massage therapist, you should follow up with self care at home- a hot shower, stretching the treated muscle gently and slowly through its full range of motion, and you can even take the big step of starting strengthening and stretching exercises to prevent the trigger point from recurring.
After reading this, if you are thinking, “I think I have a trigger point…” then you probably do. They are very common, but fixable! During your next massage, if you feel something that you think feels like a trigger point, speak up! Your therapist has the tools to help you.
Rielle Gordon, LMT at Seattle Massage Oasis