Feeling Knotty: What is a Muscle Knot?
We have all heard phrases like “I have a huge knot in my shoulder” or “I’m all knotted up”. And I’m sure we are all familiar with that sudden twinge of pain or that dull ache that cries out for attention- oftentimes while we are doing unremarkable things like making dinner or taking out the trash. But what is a muscle knot and what causes them? This is the most common question that clients ask.
Long story short: Your muscles have not tied themselves into a bow or a sailors knot but rather overworked themselves into a localized spasm. A “knot”, also known as a myofascial trigger point, is a tight ball of super-contracted muscle fibers that can affect the performance of the whole muscle, spread pain to adjacent areas and limit range of motion.
But how does that happen? Muscles that move your body are each made up of thousands of fibers that run the length of the muscle. The muscles that move your body (as opposed to postural muscles that keep you standing) are known as having “fast twitch fibers”. These fibers are meant to perform rapid, intense movements in short duration and will become sore and fatigue easily. When you want to flex your elbow, your nervous system will fire and cause your bicep to contract during exertion but stop firing and allow it to relax when the exertion is completed. It is when the muscle continues to fire or contract without releasing that a spasm or “knot” can form. Muscle constriction can also occur as a result of scar tissue created by micro-tearing in the muscle tissue. This micro-tearing can be caused by an injury, repetitive use or chronic tension. Scar tissue is an inflexible fibrous material that can adhere to muscle fibers and prevent them from sliding over one another as they should and greatly decrease flexibility. Dehydration can make the problem worse by causing the muscle fibers to adhere to one another as well.
So what can you do if your shoulders, low back or hips feel like they have mini marbles buried in them?
One great way to relieve the pain from muscle knots is to apply some heat. Run a warm bath then do some light stretching after. You can also heat the trigger point directly with a heating pad or warming oil.
A second way to diminish trigger points is to apply pressure. Professionally applied Trigger Point Therapy directly aids in the reduction of knots with a massage technique called sustained compression. The goal is to locate the knot, apply compression and stretch out and relax the contracted muscle fibers. You can even get relief from self-massage. Grab a tennis ball and lie down on top of it with it between your shoulder blade and your spine. Don’t roll the ball on your spine. You can also lean against the wall with the ball for more control over pressure. “Explore” by moving slowly and gently, until you’ve found just the right spot. If you are wincing or gritting your teeth, you should be more gentle. Visit OxfordMassageStudio.com for more information on trigger point therapy.