According to Claire Davies, NCTMB, trigger points have been found to be the primary cause of typical musculoskeletal pain about 75% of the time and they are at least a part of virtually every pain problem.
So what are trigger points?
A highly irritable localized spot of exquisite tenderness in a nodule in a palpable taut band of muscle tissue [Travell & Simons, Trigger Point Manual]
Sarcomeres, the component of muscle fibers that contract to create muscle tension, become overstimulated and are unable to release their contraction. When many localized sarcomeres are in this contracted state, it keeps the muscle under tension and is associated with tight, inflexible fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle) which contributes to any problems. The permanent contracted state of the muscle means blood and oxygen can't get in and metabolic waste can't get out.
Trigger points typically get confused with acupressure points and tender points, but trigger points are scientifically identifiable.
So how does this affect the body?
The body is designed as a beautifully balanced machine. (Cue my mechanical engineering nerdiness!) Opposing muscle groups are set up to generate similar forces to move the various joints in the body. When a typical agonist muscle is in its relaxed, lengthened state, it is balanced with its antagonist muscle. When the agonist contracts, it pulls on the skeleton across a joint to create motion. (Look at this bicep curl as an example.) You can see that the length of the muscle is a function of the tension in that muscle; this is called the length-tension relationship.
For the body to work properly we must maintain proper length-tension relationship. If you work the chest excessively and do not strengthen the opposing back muscles properly, the length-tension relationship goes askew and your shoulders will roll forward. Similarly, if a trigger point in an agonist muscle forces it into a contracted state, can you see that it will mess up the length-tension relationship and pull the skeleton out of alignment?
Our bodies adapt to imposed demands and this misalignment creates an adaptation in surrounding muscles and joints that snowballs throughout the body. A trigger point in the soleus can cause inflammation in the fascia in the bottom of the foot. A trigger point in the neck muscles can cause migraine headaches, or TMJ. We end up compensating for these adaptations: changing the way we physically do something, wearing braces or orthotics, taking medication or in the worst cases, surgery! In reality, dealing with the root cause would resolve most issues!
What can cause trigger points?
Trigger points and myofascial pain can crop up for many reasons:
- Muscle Over-use and Abuse
- Ergonomics and repetitive motion
- Physical Injury
- Poor Nutrition
How can I resolve my trigger point issues?
Unfortunately, trigger points are going to happen. Especially if we maintain active lifestyles, we're going to knowingly and unknowingly put ourselves in situations where we're likely to develop trigger points. The most common way to deal with trigger points is some type of myofascial release. Typically, this comes in the form of some type of massage. Find a therapist near you that specializes in the identification and treatment of trigger points using one of the certifying organizations like NAMTPT.
You can also benefit greatly from applying self-myofascial massage techniques. Read The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Claire Davies to get some background. There are plenty of great products out there that facilitate self-myofascial release. I personally use all of the tools from Trigger Point Performance and I became a Master Trainer for their SMRT-CORE program as a result.
Most importantly, don't wait for a trigger point to happen. The muscle length-tension relationship is key to great athletic performance, so self-myofascial release before a workout or event will put the muscles back in their strongest state right as you need them. Prevention is just as important as treatment.