The next morning you wake up and find that the back of your shoulder blade is stiff. When you rub your shoulder muscles, you feel like you’re pushing a small ball of chewing gum under your skin. Every time you try to move it, the area is tense, with slight pain.
Over the next few days, your back slowly relaxes and eventually your shoulder returns to normal. This is probably something you would like to avoid or minimize in the future if possible. So what was going on with that muscle knot?
Some of the most common questions I’ve heard in my years as a personal trainer and researcher in this field have to do with muscle knots. What are they and how can you get rid of them when they occur?
What are muscle knots?
When your muscle is damaged even a little, it can cause inflammation of the muscle bands and the fascial layer above it. And that mass of inflamed tissue is a myofascial trigger point. Small bumps are usually tender to the touch and can limit your range of motion or cause pain with various movements. Muscle knots don’t show up on medical imaging scans, and researchers are still trying to understand the exact physiological mechanisms within the muscle that cause this reaction.
Myofascial trigger points tend to develop when a muscle is irritated by a new or more intense repetitive movement than usual. For example, you may develop knots in the muscles you used the most during a particularly intense day of exercise. They can also appear if you introduce a new movement pattern into your daily workout.
Imagine adding a few days of running to your typical weekly routine of just lifting weights. Since running is a new movement, you may notice knots in your calves, which you’ve asked to do a lot of new work.
You don’t have to be a gym rat, however, to become familiar with muscle knots. For example, if you’re constantly hunched over a computer all day, you might notice knots developing in your upper back and shoulders. Most people wouldn’t consider sitting at a desk to be tiring, but holding a position for hours at a time puts a strain on your muscles. Enter muscle knots.
How to get rid of muscle knots?
For example, if you have knots in the quadriceps muscle group in the front of your thigh, you can lie on a foam roller and gently roll your leg back and forth over it. Alternatively, you can roll the device up and down over the muscle group, keeping the pressure within your comfort range. Because you apply as much pressure as you want, you can work within the limits of your own pain tolerance – an advantage, as relieving myofascial trigger points can be uncomfortable. You can use this technique all over your body wherever you have muscle knots.
Although they can be annoying, muscle knots are nothing to worry about. Remember that being consistent with exercise habits and moving throughout the day can help prevent knots from forming in your muscles in the first place. If you notice muscle knots appearing, simply stretching at the end of the day or following some self-myofascial release techniques will help alleviate this problem and prevent future problems.
Zachary Gillen is an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Mississippi State University. Gillen does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliation beyond an academic appointment. Mississippi State provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.