What Is Trigger Point Therapy?

trigger point therapy
••• Trigger point therapy involves finding and deactivating painful points that radiate pain. Getty Images: Mel Stuart

Trigger points are painful spots in the muscle tissue that radiate pain to other areas.  A trigger point is  an indication that the body has experienced some form of physiological dysfunction, such as poor posture, repetitive mechanical stress, a mechanical imbalance such as legs of different lengths, or acute trauma.  A unique feature of trigger points is that they almost always refer pain to other areas of the body.

Trigger points are part of a protective mechanism of your body, an important defense reflex that keeps your body safe.  Problems occur when the reflex misfires or doesn’t switch off – causing ongoing pain and stiffness.

Trigger point therapy is a technique in which trigger points are located and manipulated to reduce the pain and "deactivate" the point.  This technique is sometimes also called myofascial trigger point therapy.  (Myo means muscle tissue, and fascia is the connective tissue in and around it.) 

What Can Trigger Point Therapy Do?

Trigger point therapy can reduce pain, increase movement, and allow the muscles to soften, lengthen,  and become stronger. Moderate pressure should be used when treating triggers points.  If the therapist presses too hard you will tense up against the pressure, and the muscle won't relax.  

Trigger point therapy basically involves ischemic compression, a gentle and non-invasive way to deactivate trigger points, and stretching.

 Trigger point release technique might be a bit uncomfortable but it shouldn't cause pain.  In fact, muscles in pain tend to tense up, so causing pain will hinder the technique working correctly.  If it hurts too much, you will start to tense your muscles in a protective response.

During trigger point therapy, the massage therapist locates the trigger point by pressing on the muscle tissue with a finger (palpation) or by picking up the muscle fibers in a pincer grip.

 Once the trigger point is located, the therapist applies pressure until the pain gradually dissipates.  

Applying Pressure to Help Reset The Muscle 

The therapist asks you to rate the intensity of the discomfort on a scale of one to ten, with one being "no or very little discomfort" and ten "excruciating".  The therapist applies pressure, gradually increasing until you reach a discomfort level of five or six.  The therapist then holds the pressure steady until the discomfort eases off to about a level two.  Then she applies more pressure, holding it again until the discomfort level goes down.  When the discomfort level reaches a "two," the point is considered to be deactivated.  

If the point doesn't respond to the pressure within a minute, the therapist should back off, as it may not be a trigger point. 

Some, but not many spas offer trigger point therapy.  There might be therapists who incorporate trigger therapy into deep tissue massage, but not many spas where trigger point therapy is on the menu.  It is easier to find an individual practitioner through The National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists.

Its myofascial trigger point therapists  (MTPT) keep current by meeting continuing education requirements.

Many are Board Certified (CMTPT)  and were trained in specialized programs that are over 100 hours and many have well over 600 hours of training in Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy based on Doctors Travell and Simons medical text. CMTPT (usually) indicates National Certification by the CBMTPT.

What You Should Know About Trigger Point Therapy

It is used to treat painful trigger points that cause referred pain.

It took a while to get the muscle in that condition, and it will likely take more than one massage to get rid of it.

These points are often areas of chronic "holding" and you need to learn how to move in different ways to keep them from recurring.

It can be uncomfortable but should give lasting relief.

Normal muscles do not contain taut bands of muscle fibers or trigger points.