If you’ve ever had a muscle knot, then you’re familiar with that uncomfortable muscle tightness that seems to just be begging for a good massage.
But can you have a muscle knot and not know it? And are there treatments for muscle knots beyond a massage?
What Is a Muscle Knot?
For starters, a muscle knot is an area of hypersensitivity in a muscle, says Chad Taylor, a board-certified clinical specialist in both sports and orthopedic physical therapy and an assistant professor in the department of physical therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
The areas of the body most likely to be affected by muscle knots include the:
— Lower back.
— Buttocks, including the gluteus and piriformis muscles.
It’s common to overwork these areas, leaving them more vulnerable to muscle knots.
When a muscle knot forms, it’s because nearby connective tissue — which helps to support and give structure to the body — has become restricted. This can happen because of overuse or an injury.
The body then protects itself by limiting movement in the affected area and lowering the chance that it will get further injured, says licensed acupuncturist and massage therapist David Sol, dean of massage programs at Pacific College of Health and Science in Chicago. The end result? Those tight bands of muscles we refer to as muscle knots or trigger points.
A muscle knot can develop for several reasons:
— Intense exercise in the affected area of the body.
— Muscle strain.
— Overuse, such as working a specific muscle every day in your job or in a sport you do regularly.
— Poor posture. This can put a strain on your muscles.
— Sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
Symptoms of a Muscle Knot
Some common symptoms of muscle knots include:
— Pain in the area around the knot.
— Pain that occurs in another area of the body not far from the muscle knot. This is called referred pain. You could have a muscle knot in your calf, but feel the pain in your heel.
— Restricted movement in the area near your muscle knot.
— Soreness if someone touches the area around the muscle knot.
You could have a muscle knot and not even know it. In fact, many people probably have muscle knots, Sol says.
Muscle knots don’t always require treatment, but for the most part, they don’t go away on their own. Seek help if you have persistent pain from a muscle knot after trying some self-care methods like stretching or if the knot is restricting your normal movement.
Although you can consult with a primary care provider about a muscle knot if you’d like, there are other health care professionals well-versed in treating them, including:
— Massage therapists.
Best Treatments for a Muscle Knot
The goals of treatment for muscle knots are to lower inflammation and pain and increase mobility, says Daniel DeLucchi, chiropractor and co-owner of Tuttle DeLucchi Chiropractic Seattle in Seattle.
If you’re looking to get rid of a sore muscle knot, here are a few things you can do:
— Get a massage. Ah, the soothing relief of a massage. A massage can help release tension in a muscle knot. Ask the person performing the massage about trigger point massage, which is a massage that will focus on your sore spots. This type of massage can be uncomfortable in the moment, so it’s not for everyone. Still, it should provide relief to your target area afterward. You can also try medical massage, which is less for relaxation and more for treating pain or medical conditions like headaches or back pain.
— Use a foam roller. Foam rollers allow you to perform self-massage by making tight muscles looser. You can use a foam roller for a variety of muscle knots, including in the legs, hips and back.
— Try a massage gun. Massage guns used on sore muscles are popular both with athletes and regular consumers, Taylor says. A little bit of action goes a long way; even just two to three minutes of pressure from the massage gun can help, DeLucchi says.
— Ask a physical therapist about dry needling. Dry needling involves the use of small, thin needles used on a trigger point and bring blood to the area of discomfort. It’s not usually painful, but you may feel your muscles twitch when the needle is initially inserted. This can help relieve pain, Emily Jones, a physical therapist and director of sports medicine at BreakThrough Physical Therapy’s Boone at Appalachian State University clinic in Boone, North Carolina.
— Stretch. Stretches that engage the muscle area where you have a knot provide treatment by making the muscle longer and releasing tension.
— Use ice or heat. Let the person helping you with a muscle knot guide you, but generally speaking, ice (like an ice pack) is good for an acute injury, such as a newer muscle knot, DeLucchi says. It can numb the pain. On the other hand, heat helps for an injury or knot that you’ve had for a while and has become more chronic. The heat will increase blood flow to the area. A heating pad, hot tub or hot shower all can provide heat relief.
— Try acupuncture. Acupuncture involves the use of thin needles applied to specific points in the body to change the body’s qi, or energy flow. This can reduce tension and produce more pleasure-inducing endorphins, a type of chemical made in the body. Treatments like acupuncture increase blood flow to the affected area and improve communication between the overused area of the body and the body’s healthier areas, Sol says.
Any of these treatments could require a couple of sessions to effectively treat your muscle knot, although you may notice a difference in soreness after just one treatment.
Exercising With a Muscle Knot
If you have a sore muscle knot, your first instinct may be to avoid exercise. Regular physical activity is good for your whole body, so you don’t want to rest too much. The caveat is that you may need to modify what you’re doing to avoid aggravating the muscle knot’s pain more.
Taylor shares the example of having sore muscle knots in your pectoral (chest) muscles. While seeking treatment for their knots, you could still probably do running and biking, as well as yoga with some modifications, he says. He tells clients that using a pain scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest, their pain should be no higher than a 3 or 4 while exercising.
Before exercising, consider applying heat to your muscle knot for a few minutes as this can help decrease pain, Jones says. Also, do a thorough warm-up for about five minutes to prepare your body for the workout.
While it’s OK to keep moving, you don’t want to do exercise that will aggravate your muscle knot and make it worse, Sol says. That’s where lighter forms of exercise can help, such as:
— Gentle yoga.
— Tai chi.
Preventing Muscle Knots
Here are some other ways you can prevent muscle knots:
1. Watch your posture. With most of us on electronic devices more than ever before, a heads-down posture can lead to a sore neck, shoulders or back and related muscle knots. Aim for a posture that holds your head level instead of aiming down; adjust the position of your devices as needed to maintain this body-friendly position.
2. Set up an ergonomically-friendly workspace. “It’s been two years (since the pandemic started) and I still have patients telling me that working from their sofa makes their back hurt,” DeLucchi says. An ergonomically-friendly workspace will include:
— The ability to keep your feet on the floor or on a footrest.
— Wrists in a straight or neutral position when typing.
— Having your computer monitor at or slightly below eye level.
3. Find better ways to cope with stress. It’s no secret that we’re more stressed than ever nowadays, but the key is to have ways to cope. DeLucchi likes yoga, meditation and regular exercise as stress busters.
4. Keep hydrating. Drinking water is beneficial for so many reasons. In this case, water can hydrate your connective tissue and stop it from producing restrictions in the body, Sol says.
5. Stretch more and move regularly after sitting. Aim to incorporate gentle stretching throughout your day. “Notice how cats and dogs will always stretch after sleeping or laying around for a while. We should take an example and learn from them,” Sol says. If you work in a sedentary job, get up for at least five minutes every hour to help work your large muscles, Jones advises.
6. Pinpoint what you’re doing that makes muscle knots recur. If you have a muscle knot that goes away and comes back, chat with a health professional familiar with muscle knots to find out what you can do differently to stop it from recurring.
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