Anyone who's had a massage has heard their massage therapist mention knots and trigger points. But what do these words mean? Why does your therapist start working on your upper back or neck when you've said the problem is in your arms and hands?
What is a Trigger Point?
The best way to describe a trigger point is through this classic example: You have a kink in your neck that makes it painful to move and limits your range of motion -- so you apply firm pressure to that sore muscle and then feel pain shooting down your arm, or up into your head.
Trigger points are created when muscle fibers get stuck together and restrict blood flow through those muscles, also pinching nerves in the area. Muscle fibers can get stuck together when fascia (the "glue" that binds muscle fibers, muscle groups, and basically your whole body together) gets too tight, either from overuse, under use, or injury.
How Trigger Points Work
When you have a trigger point in a muscle, a message is sent to the brain asking for help. The brain tends to respond to this message by sending more blood. Since the blood can not effectively go through the constricted muscle, it causes a pain cycle. That is why it hurts and radiates pain to other areas when you touch it.
The body is a complex, interconnected system, so when one part gets hurt it can affect the whole.
For example, the nerves that control feeling and movement in the arm have to make their way through the neck and pectoral muscles. A common ailment for people working on computers all day is pain or tingling in the arms and hands -- but the problem is most likely located in the neck muscles.
Because people often to crane their necks forward while working on a computer, their neck muscles will get tight. These muscles (the scalenes) must work overtime by compensating for the extra weight cased by the head's forward posture. When these muscles get tight, trigger points are created and the feeling ripples down to your chest, arm, and fingers. You'll think something's wrong with these areas, when really, it's a trigger point in your neck muscles.
How Does Massage Therapy Get Rid of Trigger Points?
Massage therapy work on trigger points can get a bit intense. The therapist applies direct pressure to the miserable muscle. This will usually take you to the edge of your "hurt so good" zone (on a scale of 1-10, 7 is the optimal zone).
This forces the stagnant blood out of the muscle which clears a way for new, nutrient-rich blood to replace it. After applying pressure, the therapist will then do various strokes to continue to move blood through that muscle and lengthen it.
Lastly, the therapist will stretch the muscle for you or have you stretch it yourself, continuing to add length and improve circulation. Depending on how long you have had the trigger point it might take more than one massage to get it completely out. However, you should notice more range of motion and feel less tense even after that first massage.