Pain is something we all deal with on a fairly regular basis. Today I wanted to discuss a very particular type of pain created by trigger points called referred pain. While it is very common, our lack of understanding how referred pain works causes many of us to suffer needlessly.
Trigger points are very specific muscle knots. There are two important things to know about them. The first is that they are almost always a chronically tight muscle that don’t release on their own. Secondly, we feel the pain they cause in another area of our body. This referred pain is confusing because we try to rub a painful area or put icy-hot on it, but the actual cause is in another area of our bodies altogether. Our efforts to solve our pain don’t work because we don’t realize that the pain we are feeling is referred from a trigger point somewhere else. These two issues are what make them difficult to manage unless you know about their potential.
Trigger points are chronically tight because they are caught up in a positive feedback loop. The conversation between the muscle and brain continues to enforce the need for the muscles to stay contracted. The loop continues to create a state of tightness that can last long after the initial strain that caused it is forgotten. In this way the bruise and inflammation from a fall can heal, but because of a faulty loop in our nervous system, we keep the knot in our muscles long after.
Researchers are still looking into exactly how and why pain is referred from a trigger point to another area of the body. The good news is that trigger points follow a fairly consistent referral pattern. Therapists trained in trigger point therapy have a pretty good road map to follow that leads them to know what specific trigger points can be causing the pain you feel. For example, we know that a trigger point in the front neck muscles can cause a headache that radiates up to the temples and crosses the forehead. There are also several trigger points in the abdomen can cause significant back pain along the sacrum and ribs.
So how do you get rid of a trigger point? The answer is that you have to break the positive feedback loop. In many cases, the feedback loop is the last remnant of an old injury and as soon as the loop is broken the pain can disappear like magic. I have had several clients have “miracle” cures from long term pains after a single session of massage. You break the loop by putting sensation into the trigger point in such a way that the body can reevaluate the communication between muscle and brain. Typically this is done with massage directly on the trigger point or through active slow stretching as from doing yoga.
Caution: Your stubborn pain may only be difficult because you didn’t realize it was referred pain. If you can’t find the trigger point yourself, ask a massage therapist, physical therapist, or chiropractor for trigger point therapy.