If you've heard the term "muscle knot" thrown around in casual conversation but don't exactly know what it is, here's the 411.
- Leython Williams, DPT, Leython Williams, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist and facility manager for Athletico Physical Therapy in Royal Oak, MI. He specializes in musculoskeletal function and rehabilitation.
Your body is full of muscle fibers that run in various directions and layers from your head to your toes. This complex network allows you to move, dance, twist, play sports—you name it. But sometimes, our everyday lives throw a wrench in the system. "Muscle 'knots' are small bands or bumps of muscle that become stiff or tight—they can be painful to the touch. The medical term for muscle knots is myofascial trigger points. These trigger points can also cause pain to radiate into surrounding muscle tissue," explains Dr. Williams.
Muscle knots most commonly occur in the back, shoulders, and neck due to bad posture or excess stress, and when you feel one crop up, it's important to give it your full attention. "Muscle knots are incredibly common, but that doesn’t mean they are normal or harmless. Chronic stress on our muscles creates micro-tearing of muscle tissue, which creates scar tissue. If left untreated, the muscle tissue will continue to lose elasticity and cause postural stress that is hard to reverse," says Dr. William.
Left unattended, myofascial trigger points may also manifest as stress-related disorders, as well as sleep issues and even fibromyalgia, or widespread muscle pain or tenderness. So consider tackling a muscle knot now as an investment in your future health and well-being.
Keep scrolling for your step-by-step game plan for ironing out your myofascial trigger points—no matter how stubborn they are.
How to fix muscle knots in three steps according to a physical therapist
1. Take a time out from your normal exercise routine
"First, if you’ve developed a muscle knot, you need to allow your body to rest and take a break from any activities that may be causing you pain," says Dr. Williams. That means that if you have a knot in your neck or shoulder, go ahead and press pause on your upper-body strength routine until you're feeling better. You don't want to exacerbate the situation.
2. Gently stretch the affected muscle
Once you've hit the pause button on your workout routine, go ahead and gently (gently!) stretch the affected area. "Stretching elongates your muscles and can help release tension. When stretching, do not force yourself into any positions that cause severe pain. The stretching should be gentle and may be slightly uncomfortable. However, it should be pain-free," says Dr. Willaims
3. Foam roll
If you have a foam roller, grab that and give your knot a little extra attention. "Foam rolling is another great option that inhibits localized tenderness with prolonged, tolerable pressure. This deep pressure is followed by slow, rhythmical movements that compresses and lifts soft tissues and adhesions," he says. However, you should not try to foam roll delicate part of your body—like your neck and back—if you don't know the proper technique. In this case, you'll need to seek help from a PT.
4. Get a massage, if possible
"A licensed massage therapist can help manually soften and relax muscle knots. They may also recommend self-care techniques that you can perform independently at home," says Dr. Williams.
How to prevent future muscle knots
Right about now, you're probably wondering how you can avoid all this pain in the future. While life just happens sometimes, there are a few precautionary measures you can take to keep your bands of muscle happy and organized.
1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Hydration is a key component of muscle health, according to Williams. Set a timer and make sure you're drinking plenty of H2O throughout the day.
2. Take stretching/walking breaks while working
"Muscle knots can be caused by prolonged seated positions and poor posture,” says Dr. Williams. “Add more movement to your day by taking frequent breaks to walk and stretch. The general rule is to take a five-minute break every 30 minutes or a 15-minute break every 90 minutes."
3. Practice stress reduction
As mentioned, stress and muscle knots are intertwined. You can regulate your nervous system with breathwork, meditation, or with other tactics recommended by a therapist or counselor.
4. Get moving
"Aerobic exercise is another great option for helping to prevent and release muscle knots. It increases blood flow to your muscles to repair damaged and/or tight tissue," says Dr. Williams.
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