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Sports Medicine

Treating Trigger Points

Massage therapy isn't cheap, but you can do some of the work for yourself. You can safely, easily relieve a lot of discomfort by treating your own trigger points.


Have you ever been foam rolling and suddenly hit a spot that’s like, “Whoa!” That’s a trigger point, a hyperirritable area in your muscle that feels like a painful knot.

Though they’re not fully understood, trigger points are commonly believed to be mini-muscle-spasms caused by repetitive trauma to the tissue, either because of poor posture or repetitive movement patterns that, over time, cause a compensation to occur. That compensating muscle soon becomes overworked and consequently develops a trigger point to express its outrage.

And not only are trigger points painful, but they’re also sinister. “Trigger points prevent you from getting a full range of motion, either from pain or tightness or both, which increases your chance of injury during exercise,” says Kyle Stull, Ph.D., a licensed manual therapist and an educator for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Some areas are more prone to trigger points than others, and they depend on things such as lifestyle, faulty movement patterns or even footwear (stilettos, ladies?). The most common culprits are the calves, upper back/shoulders, chest, glutes and hip flexors.

On the Ball

Your best bet for optimal results is to release those trigger points both before and after your workout, increasing range of motion and decreasing risk of injury. “Since trigger points are deep in the musculature, you need something more dense than a foam roller to address them,” says Stull, who suggests a 5-inch massage ball (such as the MB5 Massage Ball, $24.99, as the ideal tool.

To use, place it between your muscle and a solid surface such as the floor or a wall, and roll over an area slowly. When you find a tender spot, hold pressure for 30 to 90 seconds. “That decreases the blood flow to the area, hopefully inhibiting it and releasing it,” Stull says. Afterward, do some static stretching to increase the muscles’ length and help the tissue heal.

It could take several weeks of consistent rolling to release a trigger point, but it will most certainly come back if your form or posture is still out of whack. “You can rub a sore neck and it might feel better, but it’s not really going to change anything,” Stull says. “Things happen to your body for a reason, so figure out the reason and correct it, don’t simply release stuff that feels tight.” His suggestion: Have a professional assess your posture, and be conscious of repetitive movement patterns and lifestyle factors that might cause a trigger point to arise.

The Moves

Roll over each muscle carefully, and once you find a trigger point, hold and apply pressure for 30 to 90 seconds. Do both before and after a workout.


Calves (soleus/gastrocnemius)

If you wear heels or are an avid runner or jump-rope aficionado, trigger points can plague your calves.

Position the ball under the middle to lower calf and roll slowly up and down until you find a tender area. Note: If your feet turn outward, position the ball higher on the calf and perform.


Hips (rectus femoris, psoas, tensor fasciae latae)

Sitting and quad-dominant activities like cycling or running can cause tight hips.

Lie facedown on your elbows with one knee bent, and position the ball under your extended leg. Roll slowly up your quad toward the hip, stopping to hold wherever it’s tender. To hit the tensor fasciae latae, position the ball at your hip, roll onto your side, cross the top leg over the bottom and tip your whole body forward slightly until you find the sore spot.


Glutes (maximus/medius)

Overtraining and a weak core can cause a trigger point in your glutes.

Sit with the ball underneath the upper glutes of one leg and cross that ankle over your opposite knee. Focus your work on the top part of the gluteus medius near the hipbone.


Upper Back and Shoulders (levator scapulae/upper trapezius)

Technology and continual sitting can put a major knot in your neck.

Place the ball between your upper back and a wall, starting at the upper inner corner of your shoulder blade and rolling slowly inward until you find a tender spot. (Be careful not to roll over your vertebrae).


Chest (pectoralis major/minor)

Slouched posture can cause a trigger point in your pec minor.

Place the ball between a wall and your upper chest near your shoulder. Lean forward and roll inward toward the sternum until you find a trigger point.