Know that sharp ache you get after an intense workout that is usually in your neck, shoulders, or upper back? It can be difficult just to move your shoulders without feeling pain, let alone continue with your workout. Even worse, this pain can linger on for weeks, or even months.
If you are active, or lift weights consistently and feel a constant stinging pain in your muscle, the culprit may be muscle knots.
Muscle knots are points within a muscle where contracted fibers are unable to release1, or, as the dictionary puts it: “highly irritable localized spots of exquisite tenderness in a nodule in palpable taunt bands of muscle tissue.”
A common problem for active people, muscle knots—technically called Myofascial Trigger Points, or MTPS—feel like a small knot to your fingertips. These knots can range from the size of a pinhead in smaller muscles to the size of your thumb in larger muscles.2
Muscle knots can cause pain in two ways: (1) latent trigger points, which are knots that only hurt when you put pressure on them, and (2) active trigger points, which are knots that actively refer pain along your neural pathways, causing it in non-localized areas.
Trigger points in a constant state of contraction have excess metabolic waste and oxygen use because blood flow to this area stops—this sends pain signals to the brain. Because your brain wants to stop the pain, it commands the muscle to rest, which leads to under-usage of the muscle. This is what makes the muscle shorten and tighten up.
The most common causes of muscle knots are:
If you are developing muscle knots frequently from lifting weights in your shoulders, neck, or upper, or middle back, the likely cause is a postural issue. For example, if you have rounded shoulders from sitting in a office, your back muscles are already overstretched because your shoulders are rounded forwards. When you complete some pull-ups, or rows, your muscle will be stretched even further when lowering the weight, then will forcibly contract when lifting the weight. This over-stretching combined with intense contractions can over stimulate your muscles causing those nasty muscle knots to form.
If you do have a painful knot, you’ll be glad to know that you can treat it yourself. And if you think you’ll need some fancy equipment, think again: the most effective treatment is done using a tennis ball and a sock.
To treat the muscle knot, simply roll the tennis ball—pressed either to the wall or the floor one side, and your body on the other—over your muscle. You can use two tennis balls, a lacrosse ball, or a smaller ball (like a racquet ball) if you want to go firmer or deeper. You can put the ball into a sock so it’s easier to hold onto and you won’t need to chase it down in case it drops.
Note that, as mentioned before, it’s possible the pain you feel might not be near its root. You might be looking at a thorough massage of multiple areas before finding the actual knot. In these cases, another tool you might want to consider is the foam roller, which looks like a giant Lincoln Log. Seen people sitting or lying down on one while rolling back and forth in your gym? They’re foam rolling to cause their muscle fibers to loosen up, which allows blood flow to increase back to the area.
As a last alternative, you could apply a deep, stroking massage directly to the muscle knot; however, not the usual “I’m going to be pampered” massage, instead, think about what it feels like to stub your toe.
But, just like stubbing your toe, when your pain vanishes, you’ll feel tremendous relief. While most people think of massages as something done with the hands, oftentimes, with knots it’s more effective to use tools.
Here are some guidelines for treating those muscle knots
Use the tennis ball, foam roller, or a deep stroking massage 2-3x a day until the pain subsides and the knot releases, which can take anywhere from a couple days to week depending on the size of the knot and the intensity of the self-massage. This should be able to clear up any muscle knots you may have. However, just because you’ve gotten rid of them doesn’t mean they won’t come back. To avoid them in the future, it’s best to stay consistent with the tennis ball work, foam rolling, or deep tissue massage. Persistence can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful treatment. Success allows for a pain-free and more mobile body.