What is a Trigger Point?
By: Matthew Hillsinger, GWU Physical Therapy Student
Throughout my time at Performance Center in Cary, patients have asked me what is a trigger point? I wanted to use this time to educate everyone on the importance of self-trigger point release as well as the proper technique for this intervention.
What is a trigger point?
A trigger point is defined as a taut band of muscle that can be irritable when pressure is applied to it. This taut band can form from a number of reasons. These reasons can include postural abnormalities that cause one muscle to be over-worked. Another reason is muscles of endurance athletes that may be working harder than normal. Trigger points are actually quite common in athletes as well as desk workers so giving you the tools and knowledge necessary for treating these is key.
How are they treated?
There are a number of ways to treat a trigger point. In the clinic, therapists have many ways to treat trigger points. One way is with a technique called dry needling. The needle is placed directly into the trigger point in order to cause a response that releases it. Other ways include instrument-assisted soft tissue massage as well as manual massage.
While manually massaging, direct manual pressure is applied. The therapist will find a taut band in the muscle and apply a direct pressure with their finger, knuckle or elbow in order to relax and release the taut band. The physiology behind the release not fully understood. One hypothesis is we are cutting off the oxygen supply to the area. This would explain the discomfort that is felt by many patients when direct pressure is applied to the area. This discomfort may be felt at the site of the trigger point or discomfort it may be felt a distant site.
Since the therapist will not always be around, we want to make sure patients can release these trigger points on their own. That is where a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or softball come into play.
This is a general technique that you can use to release a trigger point at home:
- Roll over the affected muscle with the ball (ask your therapist which ball would be appropriate as different size and density of ball are used for different body parts). In this step, you are “searching” for a trigger point.
- Once a taut band is found, apply direct pressure without moving. This may be uncomfortable as stated before. Remember to breathe and try to relax. Creating tension in the area will only make it more difficult to release (and create more pain).
- Apply pressure for enough duration to feel the taut band release. If necessary, try moving the affected joint while applying pressure.
– For example, in the calf, when the trigger point is found and pressure is applied, try moving your ankle into dorsiflexion and plantarflexion.
- Then if you can tolerate, search for another trigger point and repeat.
- After you have released a trigger point, use it! Gently using the muscle after releasing the trigger will bring necessary blood flow to the area.
Our goal in therapy is for you (the patient) to be independent in treating a trigger point on your own! Your therapist is not always going to be there. That is where we incorporate the tennis ball, lacrosse ball or softball. We want you to use these everyday items at home to treat your trigger points.
About Matthew Hillsinger:
Matt is in his third year of PT school at George Washington University in Washington DC. He was born and raised in Bowie, MD and grew up with a love for sports. He got a scholarship to play college baseball at Radford University and graduated with a Sports Medicine degree in 2012. He got drafted to play baseball in the Oakland A’s organization in 2012 but had to get career-ending ACL surgery in 2014. He has a background in personal training and still loves to watch sports and work out in his free time.