Guest Post: How to Turn Off a Little Known Cause of Muscle Pain – Myofascial Trigger Points

The following is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the views of exercise basics. 

Active myofacial trigger points are something that may already be holding you back from getting fit and flexible - without you even knowing it.

What are the trigger points? Small areas of spasm within the muscle that cause stiffness and pain. The unusual thing about the pain is that it is created in a pain distribution pattern that is particular to each trigger point - and may be far away from the site of the trigger point itself.

For example, a trigger point in the quadratus lumborum (a muscle deep in the lower back) actually radiates pain down into the buttock. Because the muscle is situated in the lower back it’s often overlooked as a source of pain in this area.

Trigger points were first mapped out by Drs Travell and Simons. They worked in the 60’s to map out all the points and their pain distributions, checking for consistency across hundreds of patients. Travell later used her knowledge as President JFK’s physician to help him overcome the debilitating back pain that could otherwise have prevented him for running for office.

So how do you check to see if you have trigger points? The first obvious one is if you have pain in a part of your body - and it’s not going away. Define the area of the pain and then use these free trigger point charts to see if the pain corresponds with any of the pain patterns outlined there.

Trigger points can be switched on by excess exercise, bad posture (which stresses the postural muscles) and pain from another source (ie. arthritis or a prolapsed disc.) Trigger point spasms are part of your body’s natural protective reflexes - so they can often be turned on in response to pain.

However, the problem comes when the trigger points then don’t turn off naturally. Often you can have an initial problem that has since settled, but the trigger points have remained active, causing pain, stiffness and disability.

How do you then turn off trigger points once you’ve found them? With your hands - with a gentle, pain free technique. This video shows in detail how to use ischemic compression to turn off triggers, but let’s go over it here first.

The main purpose of trigger point release is to interrupt the message that is going to your muscle, telling it to stay in spasm. Once this message is interrupted, most trigger points will simply melt away.

Ischemic compression is one way to turn off this message. Ischemic means ‘a decrease in blood flow.’ So by applying ischemic compression for a short time - 1-2 minutes - to an active trigger point, you reduce blood flow, and this change of state interrupts the message that is keeping the muscle in spasm.

The technique works like this. First, find the trigger point. Push on the trigger hard enough to feel the pain distribution of the active point. Then, reduce pressure until you feel no pain.

Then, the waiting game begins. Slowly increase pressure, always staying below the pain threshold. By then end of 2 minutes, you should be able to press as hard as you like on the point without feeling pain. At this stage, the trigger is effectively switched off.

If the trigger point is in a hard to reach place - ie. your back - you can use a tennis or lacrosse ball and either lean up against a wall or lie on the floor with the ball over the trigger point. Use the same principle of applying gently increasing pressure to the point in order to switch off the trigger point.

That’s it! You may notice an increase in flexibility as well as a reduction in muscle pain when you switch off active triggers. Almost everyone will get triggers at some stage in their life, so learning to switch them off is a valuable skill.

Author Bio: Naomi Kuttner is the technical director of a site focused on helping people with chronic pain issues get back their quality of life.


Travell JG, Simons DG. Myofascial pain and dysfunction. The trigger point manual, the upper extremities. Vol 1 & 2. 2nd Edition Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; 1998

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