Healing Pain With Trigger Point Therapy
By Laura Sadler, CMT
The Basics of Trigger Points
Trigger Points exist throughout our muscles, but unless activated, they do not cause any problems. When a muscle is traumatized from an injury or physical or emotional stress, the Trigger Points become 'hot' or active. The belly of the muscle forms an adhesion within the muscle fibers in response to the trauma and creates a 'knot.' On the cellular level, the exchange of oxygen, fresh blood and the waste removal slows down and lactic acid builds up, causing decreased circulation, inflammation and pain in the area. Because your Trigger Points are full of toxins they feel sore to the touch.
Trigger Points in the injured area that are very sore to the touch are called 'hot spots' and Trigger Points that are less sore are called 'satellites.' We also have 'latent' Trigger Points, a point that is sore to the touch, but doesn't cause us any pain otherwise. If we experienced pain from every single Trigger Point that existed in our body, we'd be immobile.
When a nerve is pinched or when a bone is out of place and hits a nerve, the muscles that the nerve(s) runs through will develop Trigger Points in response to the pain and will send a pain signal where there isn't necessarily an injury, causing referred pain. For example, if you have pain in your wrist, the muscles near your elbow have probably shortened, causing the tissues to pull and thus, you feel pain in the wrist and not at the elbow. The root of the problem must be addressed in order for the injury to heal.
A Trigger Point Therapist's job is to release the Trigger Points at the point of pain and to find and 'erase' the Trigger Points at the origin. Erasing Trigger Points can be done in a variety of ways, but basically, the therapist applies pressure directly at the site of the Trigger Point for a short period of time, usually, several seconds. This breaks up the muscle fibers within the adhesion and releases the toxins that have built up. Once the muscle fibers are broken up, they begin to repair and eventually they return to their natural state, ultimately releasing the muscle memory associated with the injury and healing the pain.
Expect your first Trigger Point session to be painful, in the 'good pain' sense. Make sure to communicate with your therapist about the pain levels during the treatment. If you try to grin and bear it or if the Therapist goes too deep, your muscles will tense away from the pain and reactivate the Trigger Points that the Therapist may have already erased. After a few sessions the massage will begin to feel good; the tender hot spots will begin to calm down.
Once the toxins that were trapped in the muscle have been released, you may feel sore. We call this 'healing trauma'. In holistic therapy, when you are healing the root of the problem, you may feel a little worse before you feel better.
The longer you have been in pain, the higher your pain tolerance. This is a useful mechanism our body creates for us so we can get through the day. The downside is that when you are receiving a massage, you might be able to take more pressure than you actually need. This can cause an excessive amount of toxins to be released, and it isn't until much later that you have more extreme healing trauma symptoms.
Healing trauma may last from 1-3 days and is usually a sore or achy feeling in the injured area. In very extreme cases, people may experience flu-like symptoms after a treatment. It is important to drink lots of water after a session and to do any homework the therapist gives you; i.e. ice, epsom salt bath, stretches, etc.
Don't expect to be completely healed after one session. It may have taken years for your injury to manifest and it's just not feasible to expect instant gratification when it comes to your health. It's like expecting to lose 15 pounds during the first week of a new diet: it's not realistic.
We create muscle memory in the body when we learn something new. When you learn to ride a bike you are creating new neuropathways from your brain to your muscles. Even if you don't ride a bike for years you can get on one and remember how to ride. That is the positive effect of muscle memory.
Muscle memory can also work against us. When you have developed Trigger Points from trauma or stress to a muscle, it will also create muscle memory. When we experience an injury, our muscles form a natural splint. This is helpful at the time of the injury because the pain forces us to not use the injured muscle too much and create further injury. The downside is that, with soft tissue injuries in particular, the muscle assumes the injury is recurring whenever the muscle fires.
On average, how your pain levels may respond to treatment
(0-10 represent pain level)
How Long Do You Need Treatment?
The older the injury, the longer it takes to heal. The body heals at it's own pace. Trigger Point Therapy will help to accelerate the process, but it is not a miracle cure.
Working through the Layers
When you first experience Trigger Point Therapy, you may notice that your pain covers a fairly large area. As you progress, the pain will change and you may be able to pinpoint specific hot spots. You may also have new pain in an area that never bothered you before. Don't be alarmed. You want the pain to change. It's working its way out of your body. When recovering from chronic pain, it may feel as though you are sifting through various layers of pain, like peeling back the layers of an onion.
When you begin treatment, you may experience a consistent drop in your pain levels. Then one week, you will flare up and your pain levels will rise again. Usually, the pain level doesn't return to the level at which it started. You should also know that you will get over it much faster than you did in the beginning. Flare-ups are usually due to stress, either physical or emotional.
What to do if you experience a relapse
1. Don't Panic and take a deep breath!
2. Get ice on it ASAP.
3. Make sure you have an appointment scheduled for a massage.
4. Use your own Trigger Point tools, ie. tennis ball or theracane, and continue icing until your next massage.
It Takes Teamwork
Expect to do some work outside of your sessions. Your therapist should give you some work to do on your own and if you do it, you will see results faster than if you just rely on your Trigger Point sessions alone. It is important to take responsibility for your health and your Trigger Point Therapist is there to help you.
For Best Results, Be Consistent
Trigger Point Therapy erases muscle memory and it has a 95% success rate in healing pain. But in order for it to work, you will have to receive treatment consistently. If you only seek treatment sporadically, your muscle memory will keep coming back and it will get stronger and stronger over time. Being consistent will give you a better chance of completely erasing it and will greatly increase your chances of complete recovery.
Laura Sadler is a Certified Massage Therapist and Reiki Master in Los Angeles. She also has a B.A. in Psychology from UC Irvine. Laura became a healing arts practitioner after living with chronic pain due to sports injuries. It was through her experiences in healing herself that she learned she has a special gift and true compassion for those dealing with pain or stress.