Self Trigger Point Therapy: What Are Trigger Points?

"Trigger Point" is a buzz word phrase that can be tossed around quite frequently in the massage realm and one that I find to be misused on a regular basis.

So just what is a trigger point? The term "trigger point" was developed by Janet G. Travell, M.D., and was first put in print in 1942. Travell worked as an MD at the White House through both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. She had even treated Kennedy for what could have been career-ending myofascial pain. She spent decades developing her knowledge of trigger points and treatment protocols, finally publishing her knowledge first in her eighties, and then again she published another book in her nineties. She worked together with David G. Simons, M.D., to

A trigger point refers to a contracture within the muscle belly. More commonly people refer to these contractures as "knots." When irritated, these portions of the muscle, through nervous system connections, can send referral pain to other parts of the musculoskeletal system. Through the studies of both Janet G. Travell, M.D. and David G. Simons, M.D., they were able to document the specific referral patterns elicited by individualized muscles. It is this knowledge that is used today in how we isolate and treat the trigger points in our bodies.

Why do trigger points even exist? Well, it's not 100% known yet. However, we can say that for some reason the sarcomeres (microscopic muscle fibers) within your body receive continuous nervous system impulses which do not allow it to return to state of relaxation. These contractures can be due to excessive muscle use or repetitive use of muscles,.

There are two types of trigger points that can be addressed: Central Trigger Points and Attachment Trigger Points. You see, each of our muscles have main muscle belly segments that are attached to our bones via tendons. Central Trigger Points are located within the muscle belly itself. Attachment Trigger Points are found within the tendons. Once the central trigger point has been released, the pain experienced in the attachment trigger point will decrease as well. Some professionals think that Attachment Trigger Points aren't true trigger points at all, rather they are areas of connective tissue that have become hypersensitive due to continuous strain.

Signs and Symptoms of a Trigger Point

The main symptom of a trigger point is the referral pain pattern. When a trigger point is active, there is pain and tenderness at the site of the trigger point itself as well as a traceable pattern of pain. For example, when the trigger point in an upper trapezius muscle is active, the referral pattern of pain traces its way along the side of the neck, around the back of the ear, and into the temple in a question mark pattern.

Other signs and symptoms can include pain in joints, a deep muscular ache, and nausea.

In the presence of trigger points found in abdominal muscles, the referral pain can be heart arrhythmia, diarrhea, vomiting, or incontinence.  These are also symptoms that can be associated with deeper medical conditions, so those should be ruled out by a doctor prior to undergoing trigger point therapy.

If a trigger point is located around blood vessels or nerves, a patient can experience coldness, numbness, or tingling in extremities.

Trigger Point Tools

Next in the Series: Self Trigger Point Therapy: How to Release Trigger Points

Corinne D. Bracko-Douglas, CMT, LMT, CKTP is the owner of Dochas Clinical Massage Therapy based out of Columbia, MO. She received her diploma in Clinical Massage Therapy from The Soma Institute in Chicago, IL in 2004. She enjoys teaching others about how to live a healthy lifestyle and still works one on one with clients out of her private clinic. When not working as a therapist she can be found enjoying trail hikes with her wonderful husband, Lee, and their adorable doggos, Shadow and Koda, or trying out fun new workouts to expand her knowledge of the human body and how it functions.

The advice given in these articles is not meant to diagnose. Please always consult with a health care provider before performing any of the techniques described upon yourself.


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