Have you ever heard someone say that have “knots” in their muscles? Muscle knot is a term used in a lay sense to describe discrete, tight areas on a muscle even when the muscle is at rest. Physical therapists refer to muscle knots as myofascial trigger points. The term muscle knot may have come about because people who have them say the muscle feels lumpy, tight, and uncomfortable, especially when they press on the muscle. These lumps accompanied by muscle tightness are quite common. In some cases, you may feel a muscle knot in another area remote from the muscle due to a phenomenon called referred pain. Referred pain is where you feel discomfort at an unrelated site. For example, tight muscles or muscle knots in the neck can manifest as tension headaches.
Where do muscle knots come from? No one knows exactly what causes myofascial trigger points – but there are theories. When you place a muscle under repeated stress, the muscle forms tiny tears in its fabric called micro-tears. As these micro-tears heal, scar tissue forms and it’s the scar tissue that causes the lumpy feeling and tightness in the muscle. Another theory is that tension on the muscle is uneven in people who have knots. In some areas, the muscle is pulled too tightly, creating an imbalance and also reducing blood flow. Some physical therapists believe that this reduction in blood flow may explain some of the discomfort people with muscle knots experience.
What causes them? Repetitive motion of a muscle from strenuous, improper, or too frequent weight training places you at higher risk. You may also develop muscle knots after damaging a muscle. For example, after a whiplash injury. Sitting for long periods of time, particularly if you have poor posture, can also bring on muscle knots.
Physical therapists see a lot more muscle tightness and knots these days, particularly in the neck region, as people spend more time texting. Your head weighs around 11 pounds. Depending on how low you tilt your head when you text (the force increases the lower your place your head), you can increase the gravitational pull on your spine by as much as 60 pounds. That’s a lot of force on your spine and on the muscles that surround it, so it’s not surprising that they develop areas of excessive tightness.
Even chronic mental stress can contribute to muscle tightness and knots. When you’re “stressed out,” you unconsciously contract the muscles in your neck and upper back. The constant tension can cause micro-trauma to the muscles. So, there are lots of reasons you can develop muscle knots, but if you do lots of intense exercise or sit for long periods of time, you’re at higher risk.
The Downside of Muscle Knots
Muscle knots are uncomfortable, but, even worse, they increase the risk of injury. A tight muscle reduces flexibility and, in turn, increases the risk of injury. How do you know if you have them? If you press on a muscle in a particular spot and it feels tender, you’re probably hitting a myofascial trigger point or muscle knot. The affected area may also feel lumpy or slightly swollen when you press on it. Be careful about self-diagnosing though. Lumps and bumps over a muscle in certain areas could be a lymph node or a fatty tumor. So, if in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider.
Dealing with Muscle Knots
Fortunately, you may be able to treat these hyper-contracted areas at home. If you’ve been exercising hard, take a break, and give the affected muscles a rest. If possible, massage and knead the muscles a few times per day to help loosen the tight muscle fibers. Physical therapists use a technique called trigger point release to treat clients with myofascial trigger points/ This procedure involves applying pressure to the tight area to encourage it to relax. You can try it yourself at home. Simply apply firm pressure to tight or painful areas using your three middle fingers. Then, hold the pressure for 60 seconds before releasing.
Another option is to knead the areas in a circular manner using firm pressure. Be firm, but don’t press with such force that you’re screaming at yourself to stop. It should feel a bit uncomfortable but not decisively painful. Knead the areas for 30 seconds to a minute several times per day. If the symptoms persist, you may need a consultation with a physical therapist. Some therapists use a technique called dry needling where the therapist places a dry needle into the knot. It’s not clear how it works but it seems to help some people with muscle knots.
How to Prevent Muscle Knots
You can lower your risk of developing painful muscle knots by making a few changes to your routine. If you sit during the day, take frequent breaks to stretch and walk around. If you can’t walk around, take a five-minute stretch break to loosen up tight muscles. Make sure you have an ergonomically friendly work station and are sitting in it using good posture. Exercise and weight training are an essential part of keeping your muscles healthy, but make sure your workouts are balanced. Be sure you’re working the agonist-antagonist muscles equally so you don’t have muscle imbalances. Do as many pulling exercises as you do ones that require pushing. Also, give your muscles enough rest time. As always, wait at least 48 hours before working the same muscle group against resistance again.
Don’t train when your muscles are cold. Always do a warm-up before lifting and do some light stretching after a workout is over. Invest in a foam roller and use it regularly to release tight muscles. The downside of foam rolling is it only works well for large muscle groups. For smaller muscle groups, use a tennis ball as a mini foam roller. Roll the tennis ball firmly over any overly tight muscle groups.
The Bottom Line
Muscle knots are an inconvenience and are often uncomfortable, but a few changes to your lifestyle and the way you train can lower your risk of getting them.
The Atlantic. “What Texting Does to the Spine”
Stack.com. “What Are Muscle Knots and How Can I Get Rid of Them”
Painful Science. “Basic Self-Massage Tips for Myofascial Trigger Points”