If you’re like most gym-goers or recreational athletes, chances are you have a rubber ball with spikes all over it lying in an old gym bag or sitting in a box of forgotten sports equipment. While this handy little contraption is commonplace for a lot of people who are trying to stay on top of injuries, they are not always used correctly. This blog post will address the ins and outs of trigger pointing in order to give you some helpful hints on how to do it effectively.
What are trigger points?
Trigger points are somewhat of a mystery to the medical community and have been since myofascial trigger point theory was first pioneered over 30 years ago. The reason being is that researchers cannot definitively determine what causes muscles to develop localised areas of tightness however the majority of experts in the field can agree that they do have an impact on the patients who experience them. To summarise based on the current consensus of modern medicine, trigger points are tight bands of muscle tissue that can be associated with muscle inhibition (reduced ability to activate the muscle) and an intolerance to stretch.
Common Trigger Pointing Mistakes
- Not Using Enough Pressure
It is no secret that trigger pointing is a fairly unpleasant experience if muscles are particularly tight. However, it is crucial to push past this discomfort in order to get the most out of your trigger pointing session. When working on most body parts, it is very reasonable to use your body weight to push down on the trigger pointing device of your choice so that you can really sink through the layers of soft tissue and access the muscle being targeted. If you are doing it correctly, you should notice that after 30 seconds of moderate discomfort, the pain will gradually decrease until it almost completely disappears. So whilst it may be a bit hairy to begin with, pushing through the initial barrier of soreness will yield better results.
- Not Relaxing the Target Muscle
When trigger pointing with either a ball, roller or through hands-on treatment by a therapist, the primary goal is to apply pressure in order to elicit the characteristic ‘twitch response’. This feels like the muscle gently flickering on and off while pressure is being applied. Following this response, what is often seen is a relaxation of the muscle tissue underneath which can improve symptoms of tightness, pain and cramping. As you can see, the relaxation element is crucial so if you are not actively and intentionally thinking about relaxing the muscle you are working on, you are likely missing out on the benefits. This can be difficult at first because when we experience the acute pain that arises from applying pressure to an area of tenderness, our first extinct is to contract those muscles (often automatically) and protect the area through muscle guarding. This can take some practice to overcome however a few things you can do to facilitate the relaxation of the underlying muscle is: control your breathing, stay calm, relax all parts of your body that aren’t having pressure applied to them and actively think about the muscle you are attempting to relax. The mind is a very powerful tool, so use it!
- Trigger Pointing for Too Long
The two previously mentioned errors are likely to result in reduced effectiveness of trigger pointing therapy however this point actually relates to the health of your tissues and should not be ignored. We’ve all seen it. The person at the gym lying on their trigger ball for 10 minutes while they scroll through Instagram and browse online stores, this is not the approach you should be taking. A proposed mechanism for the efficacy of trigger pointing relates the how blood travels into tissues of our body. By applying pressure on a specific spot for a short period of time, we are cutting off the blood supply so that when we relieve the pressure, even more blood rushes into the muscle tissue which is one of the ways that this form of therapy is said to relieve symptoms. However, keeping the pressure on for long periods of time can be dangerous for our tissues. Prolonged periods of oxygen deprivation can turn muscle tissue hypoxic and this can lead to muscle damage and injury development. Therefore, it is commonly recommended to only apply pressure for around 30 seconds to maximise effectiveness whilst avoiding negative outcomes.
Whilst we may not know all that much about the physiology and mechanism of trigger points, we do know that using effective therapy techniques can result in significant improvements of symptoms. The final practical takeaways for this topic would be:
- Don’t be afraid to feel a bit of pain, pushing through this will yield the best results.
- Try your very best to relax the muscle you are targeting. Breath and really think about it!
- Don’t trigger point too close to your training session as you may be a bit tender.
- Only apply pressure for around 30 seconds at a time and then move on to another spot.
- Be consistent! If you can trigger point every day, you will notice that you won’t have to press as hard or do as many points in order to feel the same effects because the muscles are becoming less tight overall.
So if you’re struggling with areas of tightness, cramping or twinging, break out the old trigger point ball and give it a go. If you follow these tips you will be well on your way to improving your symptoms and staying on top of those niggles.