Imagine that you have just completed a tough upper body workout. Your muscles are a bit tired, but overall you can get through the rest of your day just fine.
The next morning you wake up and find that the back of your shoulder blade is stiff. When you rub your shoulder muscles, you feel like you’re pushing a small ball of chewing gum under your skin. Every time you try to move it, the area is tense, with slight pain.
Over the next few days, your back slowly relaxes and eventually your shoulder returns to normal. It’s probably something you’d like to avoid or minimize in the future, though. So what was going on with that muscle knot?
I am an exercise physiologist. The goal of much of my research is to understand how different movements and forms of exercise exert pressure on muscles. Determining programs to maximize performance, whatever the training goal, goes beyond what to do while training – it’s also about the best way to prepare for and recover from stress that exercise puts on the body.
Some of the most common questions I’ve heard in my years as a personal trainer and researcher in this field have to do with muscle knots. What are they and how can you get rid of them?
The knots you detect in your muscle, which may seem as small as a marble or even as big as a golf ball, are called myofascial trigger points. The fascia is the thin layer of connective tissue that surrounds the muscle.
When your muscle is damaged even a little, it can cause inflammation of the muscle bands and the fascial layer above it. And that mass of inflamed tissue is a myofascial trigger point. Small bumps are usually tender to the touch and can limit your range of motion or cause pain with various movements. Muscle knots do not show up on medical imaging scans, and researchers are still trying to understand the exact physiological mechanisms within the muscle that cause this reaction.
Myofascial trigger points tend to develop when a muscle is irritated by a new or more intense repetitive movement than usual. For example, you may develop knots in the muscles you used the most during a particularly intense day of exercise.
They can also appear if you introduce a new movement pattern into your daily workout. Imagine adding a few days of running to your typical weekly routine of just lifting weights. Because running is a new movement, you may notice knots in your calves, which you’ve asked to do a lot of new work.
You don’t have to be a gym rat, however, to become familiar with muscle knots. For example, if you’re constantly hunched over a computer all day, you might notice knots developing in your upper back and shoulders. Most people wouldn’t consider sitting at a desk to be tiring, but holding a position for hours at a time puts a strain on your muscles. Enter muscle knots.
One of the simplest solutions to the problem of muscle knots is to wait. It takes time for muscles to adapt to a new movement or recover from stress. Usually within a week or two a muscle knot will solve itself.
You can also help speed up the recovery process. Some options include massage; dry needling, which involves injecting a very fine needle into the trigger point in an attempt to break up some of the tissue and increase blood flow to the area; and even electrical stimulation. The goal of each technique is to decrease fascia and muscle tension in the area and increase blood flow. No more blood passing provides nutrients and oxygen to damaged tissues, improve recovery.
While these techniques are worth considering, there are other, more economical things that you can do yourself at home. A fairly simple way to help soothe muscles knots stretch. Stretching can be especially helpful if you typically sit in an awkward position all day. Muscles maintained in this way under constant stress for several hours benefit from different ranges of motion.
For example, after sitting for a while, simple shoulder rolls and neck rotations can ease some of the tension in these muscles, helping to avoid or reduce the buildup of muscle knots.
Another method you can try at home is called self-myofascial release. The idea behind it is the same as massage, except this method can be done in the comfort of your own home using a foam roller, rolling devicea hard ball, such as a lacrosse or softball, or even a small piece of PVC pipe.
For example, if you have knots in the quadriceps muscle group in the front of your thigh, you can lie on a foam roller and gently roll your leg back and forth over it.
Or, you can roll the device up and down over the muscle group, keeping the pressure within your comfort range. Because you apply as much pressure as you want, you can work within the limits of your own pain tolerance – an advantage, as it can be uncomfortable to alleviate myofascial trigger points. You can use this technique all over your body wherever you have muscle knots.
Although they can be annoying, muscle knots are nothing to worry about. Remember that being consistent with exercise habits and moving throughout the day can help prevent knots from forming in your muscles in the first place. If you notice muscle knots appearing, simply stretching at the end of the day or going through some self-myofascial release techniques will help alleviate this problem and prevent future problems.
Zachary Gillen is an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Mississippi State University.
This article is republished from The conversation.