It's almost second-nature for me to grab or tug at the nagging muscle knot that lives on my upper back — but shifting my impulse to more of a massaging movement could have a better outcome.
While Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, says that everyone responds to trigger point (another name for a muscle knot) treatment differently, soft tissue massage can be helpful in providing short-term relief in pain and tenderness. In fact, Malek often teaches her patients how to utilize self-massage.
First, Malek suggests gently feeling around the tense muscle for areas that have either a small bump or a twitch when you hit it. "Once you locate the knot, you can experiment by pressing directly on it and holding for anywhere from 5-60 seconds, moving in a circular motion with your fingers or a tool," Malek says. "If you know the anatomy of the muscle you're working on, you can try moving along the fiber — think 'elongating' a tense muscle."
In terms of pressure applied, you definitely don't want to overdo it. Malek says you can vary it from light to harder, but to remember that, during this process, you're "basically communicating with the nervous system."
"It should feel 'good' and helpful, not irritating or inflammatory. If you go too hard, your body may fight back on you and the whole process may be counterintuitive," Malek says.
Start lighter to find your ideal pressure and then work your way up. "Rubbing gently can be very soothing by way of stimulating certain receptors in the tissue."
To begin and to see how your body responds to this treatment method, massage for up to a minute, Malek suggests. "At most, I have people work on areas for up to five or six minutes, and up to three times a day, so long as they are not feeling more pain or any other symptoms like numbness or tingling around the area or down the extremity."
If you are experiencing a very painful knot, Malek does not recommend going past that time interval, and it's never a bad idea to consult with your doctor for advice. "You should think of treating the knot as TLC to your body, not beating it up to make it go away," Malek says.
To massage the area, Malek says you can use anything from your hands, elbow, your palm, a tennis ball, or a lacrosse ball for a firmer option. "I personally like the massage balls as affordable options. They are built well and sometimes have ridges to vary the pressure points. Some are shaped like peanuts that can feel nice to roll up and down your back while leaning against a wall!" Malek adds.