Trigger Point Therapy: Treating Specific Pain

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 of the body and are indications that the body has experienced some form of physiological dysfunction, such as poor posture, repetitive mechanical stress, a mechanical imbalance, or acute trauma.

A unique feature of trigger points is that they almost always refer pain to other areas of the body, making it difficult to self-diagnose where the pain's coming from rather than where you feel it the most.

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.

While booking one trigger point therapy appointment with a licensed massage therapist at a spa or resort while traveling can go a long way to relieving pain on your trip, you will most likely need to schedule several appoints with your masseuse in order to relieve the tension in the knot, as these often build up over years of using the muscle.

Benefits of Trigger Point Therapy

Trigger point therapy is a technique in which trigger points are located and manipulated to reduce the pain and "deactivate" the point, which is often referred to as a knot. This technique is sometimes also called myofascial trigger point therapy because "myo" means muscle tissue, and​ "fascia" is the connective tissue in and around it.

This type of massage 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 because you will tense up against the pressure if the therapist presses too hard 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 shouldn't cause pain. In fact, muscles in pain tend to tense up, so causing pain will hinder the technique from working correctly.

How Trigger Point Therapy Works

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.

Before beginning your massage, though, the therapist may ask you to rate the intensity of the discomfort on a scale of one to 10, with one being "no or very little discomfort" and ten "excruciating." The therapist will then apply pressure, gradually increasing until you reach a discomfort level of five or six. Next, the therapist will hold the pressure steady until the discomfort eases off to about a level two before applying 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, but 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.

It's important to note that since it took a while to get the muscle into the knot that's causing deferred pain, it will likely take more than one massage to get rid of it. These points are often areas of chronic "holding," so you will also need to learn how to move in different ways to keep them from recurring.

Where to Book an Appointment for Trigger Point Therapy

Trigger point therapy is not offered at all spas, resorts, and massage studios, but there are many therapists who incorporate this technique into their deep tissue massage. Some spas and wellness centers specializing in eastern and western techniques may also offer this specific service, but the therapists there won't likely be nationally certified or accredited.

It is easier to find an individual practitioner through The National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists (NAMTPT), whose myofascial trigger point therapists (MTPTs) keep current licensing by meeting continuing education requirements.

Many are Board Certified (CMTPT), which means they are usually nationally certified by the CBMTPT 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.