FAQ: What Are Trigger Points?

Odds are if you've ever encountered someone with chronic pain, you've heard the word “trigger point”. What is a trigger point? And how is the pain associated with trigger points different than other chronic conditions?

A trigger point is defined as a contraction nodule within a taut band of muscle fibers. Usually, these nodules can be felt in the muscle body and are identified by a local twitch response. Don't mistake the twitch for a muscle spasm—a spasm is a full contraction. Here it's just a twitch at the site of the trigger point. The most distinguishing feature of the trigger point, however, is what's known as referred pain pattern. The pain that comes with a trigger point actually transfers to somewhere else on the body. For example, a trigger point in the SCM muscle can cause facial pain or pain in the jaw. A trigger point in levator scapulae can cause pain in the middle trapezius. To simplify it, have you ever had a friend squeeze your shoulder during a massage, and felt that pain shoot up all the way into your temple, mirroring a headache? That is a trigger point!

Massage therapists employ a number of techniques for treating trigger points, the most important being ischemic compression. Ischemic compression uses a considerable amount of force directly onto the nodule in order to “turn it off” so the referred pain will eventually subside. Usually your therapist will use thumb or elbow pressure so they can sustain the compression stroke. Your massage therapist can also show you helpful stretches to do in between sessions. Like this one: For Levator Scapulae, tilt your head away from the affected shoulder. Using your lats, depress the affected shoulder as far down as possible. Place your hands behind your back. Grab the hand from the affected side and pull down. Rachel Beider suggests this awesome book to learn more: Trigger Point Self-Care Manual.