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What Is Trigger Point Therapy?

A woman massages her back with a prickly ball.

Feeling achy and stiff? We all walk around with knots in our bodies from a variety of daily activities. But luckily, there are a variety of ways to work through common aches and pains, and one of the most common doesn’t require anything outside of a lacrosse ball: Trigger Point Therapy.

Lifesavvy spoke with Alexis Pena, Pilates Instructor, Massage Therapist, and MELT Certified Practitioner from In-Form Pilates and Bodywork to uncover the details behind this popular form of muscle release and ways to add it to your at-home self-care routine.

What Is Trigger Point Therapy?

Pena describes trigger point therapy as “a hands-on treatment method that targets hypersensitive areas within a taut band of skeletal muscle tissue.”

Often times trigger points therapy is applied to areas of muscle that ache and cause discomfort as a result of injury, or chronic pain. Pena shared that tissues that would benefit from trigger point therapy might behave in a pattern of twitching, tenderness, and “referred pain,” from another area of the body.

Trigger point therapy can be applied by a massage therapist and a bodywork specialist, as well as on your own by using a lacrosse ball, or MELT Method Balls, as recommended by Pena.

When working with a massage therapist or bodywork specialist, it’s important to share what you’ve identified as your trigger points, so that he or she can apply bearable pressure to release the muscle tissue and provide recommendations for your at-home practice.

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Use these common tools for the therapy.

What Are the Benefits of Trigger Point Therapy?

A person uses a massage ball on the underside of their thigh.

Trigger point therapy provides a feasible and non-intrusive approach for dealing with knots and aches in the body, which can help alleviate persistent pain, enhance joint mobility, alleviate symptoms of conditions such as myofascial pain syndrome, and improve both muscle strength and performance.

By targeting the specific areas of muscle tension, trigger point therapy can effectively release knots and tightness, allowing muscles to function more efficiently and facilitating an increased range of motion. This technique can be a useful addition to any comprehensive physical therapy and movement rehabilitation regimen and can contribute to better overall health and well-being.

Who Should Try Trigger Point Therapy?

Trigger point therapy can be advantageous for individuals suffering from chronic pain or musculoskeletal issues, such as arthritis, spinal cord injuries, and shoulder and knee conditions.

It’s also a go-to practice for many pro and recreational athletes who find themselves repeating the same movement.

“Professionals in jobs that involve recurring tasks or maintaining positions for extended durations, and those dealing with various conditions such as tension headaches, low back pain, trigger finger, temporomandibular (TMJ) joint pain, and muscle weakness, among others, are other great candidates for trigger point therapy,” said Pena.

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How to Do Trigger Point Therapy Yourself

A woman uses a tennis ball to massage her back.

When developing a trigger point release program to do at home, Pena emphasizes exercising caution regarding the amount of pressure applied to a trigger point area, so that the amount of pressure feels comfortable, rather than painful. She also shared the importance of releasing the muscles around the area of discomfort before addressing the trigger points directly.

Before getting started, select an appropriate tool based on the size of the adhesion or knot, such as a tennis or lacrosse ball. Take into consideration the density of the tool, as using an excessively hard object could trigger a “contractile response,” leading to further tightening of the tissue.

For a gentler alternative, consider Franklin method balls, MELT method balls, or a Pilates pinky ball. As the tissue becomes warmer and adjusts to the compression, you can gradually transition to a denser object for additional relief.

MELT Hand & Foot Therapy Ball Kit

Pena's recommended MELT therapy kit!

For the following releases we recommend identifying the sensitive area and applying light pressure until you feel a noticeable release. Focus on your breath. Pena notes that breath helps tissues adapt to the compression of the tool against the tissue. Breathing can also help ease muscle spasms and unnecessary tension as a result of the release.

Of course, before trying any new therapy method at home, it’s bet to consult with a physician or professional before attempting your own practice.

Neck Pain Trigger Point Release

The following neck pain trigger point release is ideal for those experiencing headaches, and migraines and for those who have a tendency to press their chins forward into “text neck.” As recommended by Pena, it is best to release the muscles around the most tender area first.

  1. Lay on your back with your release tool in hand.
  2. Carefully place your ball on the lateral portion of your upper spine, above your shoulder blades, starting with the less tender side.
  3. Breathe 3-5 times.
  4. Now, place your ball on the exact opposite lateral side of your upper spine, on the more tender side.
  5. Breathe 3-5 times.
  6. Repeat if necessary.

Low Back Pain Trigger Point Release

Low back pain trigger point release is best executed by starting indirectly and then focusing on the release of the lower back muscles and ligaments, later on. Pena recommends focusing on the release of your glutes, hamstrings, and calves before targeting the low back itself.

  1. Lay on your back with your release tool in hand.
  2. Place your ball under your right glute, bend your knees, and begin to knock your knees from side to side until you begin to feel a release.
  3. Breathe 3-5 times and repeat on the other side.
  4. Repeat this exercise with your legs straight and your ball underneath each calf.

If your low back is still feeling stiff, try the following seated trigger point release before applying the pressure of the ball directly to your low back.

Seated Trigger Point Hamstring Release

The following hamstring release provides a good point of release for low back tension and nerve tension. If you struggle with bending over to touch your toes, this one is for you.

  1. Sit on the edge of a firm surface, like an office chair or a hard bench.
  2. Place your ball underneath the bed of your right hamstring.
  3. Rock your right leg from side to side until you feel a release
  4. Breathe 3-5 times and repeat with the ball under the other hamstring.

Trigger point therapy is an excellent release technique for anyone with daily aches and pains, whether that be from your office job or Saturday morning tennis match. It is a technique that you can attempt at home, and with the help of a bodywork professional.

Pena shared that it’s common for multiple sessions to be required sometimes to achieve the desired muscle release. Trigger point therapy as well as incorporating stretching, foam rolling, mobility exercises, and strength training will be sure to support your long-term body goals.

Jenn Vigh Jenn Vigh
Jenn is a pilates and yoga instructor, an aerialist, and a travel blogger with 5 years of experience in nonprofit communications, and over 10 years of experience writing, teaching, training, performing and collaborating with creatives across the globe. For the last 6 years, her American home-base has been Austin, TX, where she’s worked with the aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, and enjoyed the sunshine with her world-traveling yorkipoo, Sheila. Read Full Bio »
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