If you’ve ever gotten (or given) a massage, you probably noticed that some muscles have painful little lumps or knots in them. They’re sometimes (enjoyably) painful when massaged or prodded; although the worst-case scenario can be constant pain during typical activities of daily living. The technical term for a knot like this has been coined “trigger point” by JFK’s doctor, Dr. Janet Travell.
The typical presentation of symptoms arising from trigger points are painful restricted range of motion and/or dull, aching or sharp muscle pain. Additionally, trigger points can cause referred pain. You may be familiar with the concept that oftentimes when someone gets a heart attack, they will experience pain down their left arm. This is a classic example of referred pain due to (cardiac) muscle damage. The same concept goes for skeletal muscle and/or fascia. I’ve even had instances where patients thought they were having a heart attack, but it was actually referred pain from a trigger point in their chest (pectoral) muscle.
There are basically two types of trigger points. One involves muscle fibers while the other involves fascia, the soft connective tissue that covers every muscle and permeates the entire body. It’s not important for you as a patient to know the difference, however it is for the doctor because the way it’s treated will depend on whether the problem is in the muscle or the fascia.
Trigger points can develop for any number of reasons. Postural distortions very often cause and/or exacerbate trigger points. Another common reason would be a (quick) change in position after being sedentary for a long time. A classic example is someone who is crouched or kneeling while gardening and then suddenly stands up. This commonly results in trigger points in the hip flexor(s) and often leads to low back pain. Theoretically, the muscle is “stuck” in the crouched position and hasn’t adjusted to the standing posture appropriately. This same scenario can take place under any circumstances involving changes in position, especially if they are sudden.
An inhibited or truly weak muscle can also result in trigger points. Typically, the trigger point will be in a synergistic (i.e.: one that performs the same or a similar function to the weak one) and/or the antagonistic (i.e.: a muscle that acts opposite the weak one) muscle. A synergistic muscle would develop trigger point(s) because it has to work harder and make up for the weak one; while an antagonistic muscle can develop trigger points because it tends to shorten and tighten due to a lack of sufficient opposing forces. Typically the former will result in a trigger point in the muscle, and the latter will often involve more of the fascia. This triad of muscle dysfunction is very common in musculoskeletal injuries and pain, and correcting these aberrant muscle patterns and trigger points often makes all the difference between success and failure. Fortunately, treating a person with pain that arises from trigger points is fairly straightforward, simple, and easy to resolve.
If however, a person tends to have trigger points “all” over their body or chronic recurring trigger points, nutritional deficiencies should be considered. In Dr. Travell’s book, “Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, The Trigger Point Manual”, she mentions inadequacies of vitamins B1, B6, B12, folic acid, and vitamin C; and inadequacies of the minerals calcium, iron, and potassium as potentially aggravating factors. I would add the mineral magnesium to that list as well, because of its ability to act as an anti-spasmodic.
Generally speaking, we all have trigger points in our muscles and/or fascia to some degree. What matters is how much they are contributing to pain and joint dysfunction.
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology