No matter who you are or what you do, sore and achy muscles are a problem that plague us all to some degree. From soreness between your shoulders from slouching towards a computer to deep calf stiffness from those runs in the morning, muscle pain can really put a downer on things. Not only can your stiff muscles cause pain and injury, but they can also cause huge reductions in your overall mobility. For example, runners who can't touch their toes anymore or body builders who have a hard time reaching their arms straight up overhead. While the individual complaints may be different, the roots of them are pretty darn similar. While most people think that they need a massage therapist to relax their kinked up muscles, self massage can be just as effective at a small fraction of the price. Don't get me wrong, professional help is great and sometimes warranted. At the same time, for most issues, you can get huge relief with your own two hands and a few handy tools. This post will take you through the anatomy of your sore muscles, why they crop up, and how you can improve them through self massage.
Anatomy of your sore muscles
Before we get into things, a few technical terms to give you a bit of background on your muscle. Fascia is the tough connective tissue that surrounds each bone, muscle, organ and nerve of the body. Moving onto your specifically your muscles, myofascia [(Myo•muscle)(fascia•connective tissue)] is often described as a 3D stocking that runs over your whole body.
Restrictions in your myofascia can feel like "knots" or bands of tight and painful muscles. The term "knots" is a bit of a misnomer since muscle fibers can't actually knot up. Instead, these are hyper-irritable spots called myofascial trigger points, which have noticeable nodules (like those "knots" that you feel) that are painful to touch. Pain will often radiate from these points or cause pain in another area (referred pain). When your muscles are in good working condition, they allow us to do our normal day to day activities with ease. However, when they harbor trigger points, they become painful, stiff, and tense. These small little points can really make a difference in your overall mobility as they prevent the full lengthening of your muscles.
Note: These points are either active, causing pain at rest, tender to touch, and causing referred and/or radiating pain, or latent. Latent points aren't as painful but can still restrict movement or cause muscle weakness. You probably won't be aware of latent point until you put pressure on them, which will cause pain.
Trigger points are often underlying causes of back pain, head aches, neck pain, shoulder pain, jaw pain, tennis elbow, hip pain, leg & knee pain, foot pain, tendinitis, bursitis and so on. About 95% of people with chronic pain disorders have ongoing myofascial pain due to trigger points.
The following image indicates common spots for trigger points to crop up. This image was made using a great anatomy picture by reelshub.com.
While trigger points are largely misunderstood, the current hypothesis is that they're created, sustained and perpetuated by a muscle-energy crisis, which keeps the muscle tensed up. When the muscle is contracted for a longer period of time, the muscle a) needs more energy (contraction needs energy) and b) prevents circulation from actually getting to the spot. With no energy or oxygen from normal blood flow able to reach the area, muscle fibers get locked into contraction and form a trigger point. In VSE imaging, there's actually a reorganization of blood vessels around trigger points. This creates a vicious cycle that's really hard to break without some sort of physical therapy to get circulation back into the area.
How do you get trigger points in the first place?
Trigger points are most frequently caused by stress on the muscle. So what kind of stress are we talking about? The most common stress is from poor posture, creating that tense and achy area between your shoulder blade and up through your neck. Just think or this: when you allow your head to drop forward and shoulders to roll inwards, your elongating those upper back muscles, which have to work harder to hold the extra weight from your uncentered head. At the same time, your chest muscles become chronically contracted. If your someone who has a tight upper back from poor posture, you'll probably be surprised to feel quite a bit of tension and pain when you press your fingers into your chest muscles, especially towards your shoulder. How about painful arches? This often crops up from prolonged standing or walking on fallen or raised arches. Other stresses include exercise, poor muscle balance (e.g. over strengthened biceps and under strengthened triceps often will leave you with elbow tendinitis or bursitis, which massage along with strengthening the triceps will work wonders), poor sleep, joint disorders and sometimes even vitamin deficiencies. Mental stress is another common factor as we often clench our jaws or tense our shoulders. While correcting your posture and imbalances are key to resolving your muscle pain long term, massage can give you tremendous relief, especially when combined with said posture correction and a few strengthening exercises.
How-to guide on working out trigger points!
Firsts things first, you've got to find those bad boys. Trust your instincts and rub or press where it hurts. Your muscle will feel stiff in the area surrounding a trigger point. While you may not be able to feel the nodule, massaging the general area can still be very effective. Pressure on a trigger point will feel pretty sharp, and may even cause referred pain somewhere else (e.g. press on the top of your shoulders, feel pain down through your elbow) or a bit of a twitch in response.
The general protocol for trigger point massage is putting direct pressure (in a vertical and perpendicular manner) on the point to a) elongate the muscle fibers and b) force circulation back through the area. Before you get into it, start by warming up the area either with heat or movement, bringing some extra circulation to the area. Now that you've found that sore spot or trigger point, press directly and firmly on the point until you feel about a 5 or 6 of 10 (pain). You can either use your fingers or some kind of tool (see below for my recommendations). Try to take deep breaths during all of this. Pressure should be strong and have a bit of a relieving quality e.g. good pain. If your wincing or gritting your teeth, you may want to ease off a bit so you can relax into the pressure. Hold the pressure until the pain goes down and than raise your pressure even more to bring the pain back up to a 5 or 6 until the next barrier is broken. Do this one more time and then slowly remove pressure and relocate to another spot in the area. When your done with a given area (e.g. your upper back and neck), be sure to stretch out the area and then do some basic range of motion movements (e.g. arm circles). While the term "release" is a bit vague, generally this means that your contracted muscle will relax, which should give you significant pain relief and improved mobility in the area. You'll usually feel this by the morning after your self massage treatment.
The following is a quick guide to several dowel massage techniques for different areas of the body that you may be holding tension. I was going to make my own dowel massage infographic but I found the following post from Lydia @ yogawithlydia.ca. I definitely couldn't have given a better demonstration. I originally learnt this technique from David Bruni, a massage therapist and yoga teacher extraordinaire at the Downward Dog in Toronto... Works unbelievably well, especially given how cheap dowels are to come by (about 2-3$ at hardware stores)! This is a must try for anyone that wants to give self massage a try! Other tool options include a golf ball or tennis ball, Accuball (LOVE these) or one of those Theracane Massagers.
Thanks for stopping by, hopefully this post was informative. If you have any questions, queries, conundrums or concerns, leave them below in the comments, on The Eco Well's facebook page or shoot me an email!
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