Chances are, you’ve experienced the tender, achy feeling of a muscle knot at some point in your life. Research has shown that muscle knots may affect up to 85 per cent of the population. Muscle knots impair mobility, cause pain, and can reduce a person’s quality of life.1
What are muscle knots?
Muscle knots are typically found in your back, shoulders, and neck. They are stiff bands of muscle that have a hard knob in the centre, which is known as a trigger point. The pain can either pop up spontaneously (active) or when the trigger point is pressed (latent).3 But in all cases, muscle knots cause pain to radiate beyond the trigger point into the surrounding muscles.
What causes muscle knots?
Muscle knots, also known as myofascial trigger points, are complex and have a variety of possible causes. There is a lot more research to be conducted on the matter, but the best available evidence suggests that muscle knots are the result of overuse2 such as heavy lifting or repetitive activities. Other causes may include:
- Psychological stress1
- Poor ergonomics1
- Bad posture1
- Unhealthy eating habits4
- Sleep disturbances5
- Joint problems5
“Muscle fibres are made to move – contract and relax – lengthen and shorten,” says Dr. Adrian Chow, DC. “However, when we sit at the computer all day, with very little movement in between, these muscle fibres begin to stick to each other, forming a knot. Bad posture also puts stress on our muscles, and with enough time, this stress can cause the formation of scar tissue.”
What are the symptoms of muscle knots?
Pain is the primary symptom of muscle knots. Since everyone experiences pain differently, your symptoms may vary from those of someone else. However, most people agree that muscle knots feel swollen, tense, or bumpy, and cause an aching sensation.4
Depending on where in the body the muscle knot is located, it may cause seemingly unrelated pain in other areas. For example, a muscle knot in the neck can send pain into the base of the skull, causing a tension headache.4
Who is most at risk for muscle knots?
There are very few people who get through life without ever experiencing a muscle knot. Ninety-seven per cent of people with chronic pain have trigger points, and 100 per cent of people with neck pain have them.6,7,8 There are, however, certain risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing muscles knots. These include:.
- People with fibromyalgia6
How are muscle knots diagnosed?
Diagnosing a muscle knot requires a physical examination by an experienced professional such as a chiropractor. The examiner will assess the area of concern for three things: a taut band of muscle, a tender nodule, and the reaction of the patient to physical pressure.6
How are muscle knots treated?
Once you’ve been diagnosed, the question becomes “How do I treat the muscle knot in my back/neck/shoulders, etc.?” There are several options, but the most common include:
- Massage therapy
- Ultrasound therapy
Whichever option you choose, the main goal is to release the trigger point to reduce pain and increase mobility1 by breaking up the knotted tissue and calming inflamed nerves.4
How can you prevent muscle knots in the first place? 4
Because muscle knots are the result of overuse, stress, bad posture, fatigue, etc., your risk of getting a muscle knot can be lowered by resting and working on posture and overall lifestyle habits. Here are some tips:
- Improve your posture by sitting in a relaxed position, with your shoulders back and down. Try your best not to slouch.
- Take opportunities throughout the day to rest and incorporate exercise into your routine.
- Don’t overdo it when lifting heavy objects. Ask for help, take it slowly, or move things in batches.
- If your job requires you to sit for most of the day, take regular stretch breaks to prevent your muscles from getting too tight.
- Make sure your diet includes a healthy mix of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.
Can you treat muscle knots at home?
While we recommend seeking the advice of a spine, muscle, and nervous system expert, there are some cases where you can massage the sore muscles yourself. Try following this simple technique: 4
- Locate the knot in your muscle and, using your fingers, gently massage it out.
- Focus on loosening the tight muscle by pressing down firmly and making small circles.
- If you’re finding it difficult to reach the muscle knot in your back, neck, or shoulders, you can try using a tennis ball or foam roller to apply pressure to the knot. Slowly and gently move back and forth to relieve the tension.
Muscle knots in any area of the body are painful and frustrating. Now that you know what they are, what causes them, and how to treat them, we hope you’ll find relief and get back to enjoying your everyday activities.
- Jafri, M Saleet. “Mechanisms of Myofascial Pain.” International scholarly research notices vol. 2014 (2014): 523924. doi:10.1155/2014/523924
- Bron, Carel, and Jan D Dommerholt. “Etiology of myofascial trigger points.” Current pain and headache reports vol. 16,5 (2012): 439-44. doi:10.1007/s11916-012-0289-4
- Shah, Jay P et al. “Myofascial Trigger Points Then and Now: A Historical and Scientific Perspective.” PM & R : the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation vol. 7,7 (2015): 746-761. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.01.024
- Cronkleton, E. (2017, October 19). How to Treat and Prevent Muscle Knots (G. Minnis DPT, Ed.). Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-knots
- Alvarez DJ, Rockwell PG: Trigger points: diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2002, 65: 653-660.
- Bablis, Peter, et al. “Neuro Emotional Technique for the Treatment of Trigger Point Sensitivity in Chronic Neck Pain Sufferers: A Controlled Clinical Trial.” Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, BioMed Central, 21 May 2008, chiromt.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1746-1340-16-4.
- Rosomoff HL, Fishbain DA, Goldberg M, Santana R, Rosomoff RS: Physical findings in patients with chronic intractable benign pain of the neck and/or back. Pain. 1989, 37: 279-287. 10.1016/0304-3959(89)90192-9.
- Ester Cerezo-Téllez, María Torres-Lacomba, Orlando Mayoral-del Moral, Beatriz Sánchez-Sánchez, Jan Dommerholt, Carlos Gutiérrez-Ortega, Prevalence of Myofascial Pain Syndrome in Chronic Non-Specific Neck Pain: A Population-Based Cross-Sectional Descriptive Study, Pain Medicine, Volume 17, Issue 12, December 2016, Pages 2369–2377, https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnw114