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Trigger Point Massage: The Secret to Pain Relief

Man receiving deep tissue and trigger point massage

Most people have been at the mercy of stubborn muscle pain or discomfort. Sometimes the cause of pain isn’t as clear as we’d like such as a strain from working out, a bruise from some trauma, or even something labeled via diagnostic testing.

A staggering statistic worth noting as stated by Travell & Simon in their text Myofascial Pain and Disfunction, “The economic costs associated with chronic pain outpace the combined costs from diabetes, cancer and heart disease.” With that in perspective, let’s not be a part of the statistic - if we can help it! In this blog, we’ll discuss what trigger points are and what trigger point massage can do for you.


What are Trigger Points? 

Trigger points are hyper-irritable knots in your muscles that can hold and accumulate tension, leading to pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling. They can be the source of our muscle discomfort either as an isolated cause or due to concurrent conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome, dysmenorrhea, and more). 

Trigger points can also affect your range of motion and therefore flexibility and performance. Chronic poor body mechanics or overworked muscles can bring this on. If your muscles feel stiff and tight, odds are a trigger point is involved. 

 

How to Do Trigger Point Massage

When you find a knot in your muscle, you’ll know it! Applying pressure can increase pain and tenderness. How much pressure should I apply, you ask? Davies & Claire write in their text, “The goal should be to make the level of pressure you use ‘therapeutically delicious’ or ‘exquisitely tender’. Too much pressure may cause you harm. Find your sweet spot for pressure (usually at a 5 out of 10), as you know your own pain more than anyone. 

The steps for a trigger point massage:

  1. Find the trigger point (knot) or stiff area, tender to the touch
  2. Press strongly, or use slow firm strokes using your fingers pushing into the knot (tools such as a massage ball or foam rollers may also be used)
  3. Continue for three to five minutes - up to five or six times daily

Incorporating trigger point massage into your routine and making sure you don’t overdo it is key. Most results may be noticeable within a week, maybe sooner if you have found the correct trigger point for your pain.


How Do I Know I Found a Trigger Point?

Most trigger points may feel like a general tight area while others will feel like a distinct ball or knot within your muscle. Extreme tenderness upon palpation is a rather successful measurement of finding one. 

Sometimes your muscle may also twitch when the area is touched. However, it’s worth mentioning that pain caused by the trigger point may not be just when it’s being worked on. For some people, it may also occur sporadically or travel to another area (referred pain).  

If you find an area that hurts more when applying pressure, you most likely have found it. After some consistent sessions of massage, it should get softer and less painful. 

The pain caused by a trigger point shouldn’t feel sharp nor should it worsen with activity (eating or walking, for example) or massage therapy. These traits indicate your problem may be something else and require medical attention. 

You can also use a trigger point chart for reference. It can help determine the areas your pain may travel to due to a certain trigger point. If you cannot find relief, it may be because you haven’t found the sweet spot yet. If you’re having lower back pain, for example, you may actually have to work on releasing a trigger point in your Psoas (hip flexor) muscle. See this page on referred back pain for more info. 


Tools for Trigger Point Massage 

Although your fingers are the easiest to use, doing this daily can get tiring or difficult. If you have the help of a partner, other body parts capable of pressure (elbows, heels, knuckles, etc.) can save you extra effort. There are many tools available today that can be more efficient depending on the muscles you’d like to target. 

Man using lacross ball for trigger point massage

 

Lacrosse Ball

A lacrosse ball (or tennis ball) can be a useful tool for releasing trigger points.  Not only are they easy to find but also super portable as well. 

You will need a wall to lean yourself on, placing the ball where you feel tension. Using your own body weight, lean into the ball allowing it to push into the muscle. Slow, circular, or back-and-forth motions should do the trick. 

For your back, a wall is needed, but for the glutes, feet, and hips, you may use the floor. For more in-depth guidance, check out our resource about lacrosse ball massage

Man using the QL Claw for trigger point massage

 

QL Claw

A contender for achieving an amazing trigger point release is the QL Claw. Also portable and affordable for your own use at home, the QL Claw is ideal for the Quadratus Lumborum and other muscles such as gluteus minimus, piriformis, iliacus, and more. 

Unlike a massage ball, you can lay on the QL Claw and let your body weight do the work. It truly is like a deep tissue massage you can carry in your gym bag or backpack! 

There are other trigger point massage tools out on the market you can try, these are just a couple of examples worth trying. There are still massage guns, the back buddy, and of course, a professional massage therapist who can do a deep tissue massage.

 

When Trigger Point Massage Does Not Apply

If you have a serious health condition, it’s important to find out first from your medical provider if your body can handle massage therapy. Some of these are noted in the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, “A brief list of examples includes aneurysm, atherosclerosis, cancer, congestive heart failure, coronary after disease, peritonitis, or polycystic kidney disease.” It’s also critical to note that trigger point massage should not be done on a pulse or lymph node.


Trigger Point Massage: Conclusion

The name itself can be a little daunting at first, but trigger point massage is quite easy to learn and get a hang of. If you start out by getting a feel for your muscles, the presence of knots may be easier to detect the more you practice. Learning to do it yourself is not free and non-invasive, but the convenience of being able to do it anywhere may save you from further pain. 

Trigger points can go widely ignored throughout most people’s lives regardless of whether you are a care provider or a patient. In my 10+ years of nursing experience, I have yet to hear peers or doctors openly discuss trigger points, even if most of our patients are experiencing pain. If you’d like to learn more and OWN your pain, take a look at our other articles regarding trigger points and back pain.





Sources:

[1] Davies, Clair, and Amber Davies. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. 3rd ed., New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2013.

[2] Donnelly, Joseph M. Travell, Simons & Simons Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: the Trigger Point Manual. 3rd ed., Wolters Kluwer Health, 2019.



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