Trigger points (TrPs), or muscle knots, are a common cause of stubborn and strange aches and pains, and yet they are under-diagnosed. The 13 Perfect Spots are trigger points that are common and yet fairly easy to massage yourself — the most satisfying and useful places to apply pressure to muscle. For tough cases, see the advanced treatment guide.
Just beyond your elbow, all the muscles on the back of your forearm converge into a single thick tendon, the common extensor tendon. At the point where the muscles converge, in the muscles that extend the wrist and fingers, lies one of the most inevitable myofascial TrPs in modern civilization: Perfect Spot No. 5. It is constantly and greatly aggravated both by computer usage today and by the use of a pen in simpler times — and by the occasional tennis match, then and now.
Unlike trigger points in the back or the shoulders, where feelings of aching and stiffness are all-too-familiar, people are often unaware that there is anything wrong in their forearm until things get ugly. Unfortunately, instead of being diagnosed correctly, almost everyone who develops an active Spot No. 5 is diagnosed with either “tennis elbow” or a wrist problem, usually carpal tunnel syndrome. Note that not every Perfect Spot is a major cause of common problems in the area — I do not blindly assume that every muscle knot is clinically significant! But this one often is.
Virtually all wrist pain is either caused or significantly complicated by myofascial TrPs in the forearm musculature, especially the extensors of the wrist and fingers, and especially Perfect Spot No. 5.
(Of course, injuries are an exception, right? Sadly, no. The “cause or complicate” rule applies even with injuries: if you damage your wrist, tension in the forearm is going to be a factor in healing.)
Unless there is a clear injury, nearly all kinds of wrist pain, regardless of their true cause, are usually mistaken for carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome is one of those conditions that enjoys such a grandiose reputation, such over-the-top “popularity,” that it is usually suspected and diagnosed no matter how wrong the symptoms are. Something wrong with your wrist? Must be carpal tunnel syndrome!
The One True Cause of most wrist pain, however, is Spot No. 5!
I say that with my tongue in my cheek, of course — there’s never one true cause of anything. Nevertheless, Spot No. 5 is a contender because, even when it is not the actual cause of wrist pain, it is often such a significant complication that relieving it will come close to solving the problem. In fact, even in cases of actual carpal tunnel syndrome, where all the signs and symptoms really do fit with a diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome, treating trigger points in the forearm often resolves the problem — somehow, relieving them interrupts whatever vicious cycle it is that perpetuates carpal tunnel syndrome.Something wrong with your wrist? Must be carpal tunnel syndrome!
Perfect Spot No. 5 is probably1 a major cause of or contributor to a “tennis elbow,” technically known as lateral epicondylitis, which commonly afflicts typists as well as racquet sports players. Just like “carpal tunnel syndrome” often isn’t really carpal tunnel syndrome, “tennis elbow” often isn’t really tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is regarded my most health care professionals as being a tendinitis of the common extensor tendon at the elbow — immediately to the “North” of Perfect Spot No. 5.
But tennis elbow is rarely if ever a case of true or “pure” tendinitis, because there isn’t actually much inflammation involved. True inflammation is only present in the early stages of tendinitis — anything that lasts longer is not really inflammatory in nature.2 In 1999, Boyer and Hastings wrote, “The term epicondylitis suggests an inflammatory cause; however, in all but one publication … no evidence of acute or chronic inflammation is found.”3
Instead, tennis elbow is entirely the result of either the pain of TrPs themselves, or due to the fact that muscle knots are pulling hard on the tendon. Regardless, the quickest path to relief in almost all cases of wrist and elbow pain is to massage Perfect Spot No. 5. Self-treating them is a low-cost, low-risk method of attempting treatment of tennis elbow. For more information about dealing with tennis elbow, see Save Yourself from Tennis Elbow!.
Curiously, a muscle in the neck seems to have an unusually strong effect on Perfect Spot No. 5. Travell and Simons write, “Scalene muscle trigger points are frequently the key to [treatment of] forearm extensor digitorum trigger points.”4 If you need to help your forearm muscles, I recommend also treating your scalene muscles — see Massage Therapy for Neck Pain, Chest Pain, Arm Pain, and Upper Back Pain.
The muscles on the back of your forearm lift your fingers and wrist. You can see them moving under the skin of your arm if you drum your fingers on a desk. In writing, typing, and mousing, these muscles must hold the wrist up and stable, and the fingers work constantly. In racquet sports, the forearm muscles particularly suffer because of the eccentric contraction required to stabilize the wrist on striking.5
Spot 5 is easy to find and treat yourself. Simply find the bony knob on the outside edge of your elbow. This is the point on which all the muscles on the back of your arm converge. Just beyond that point — below it, towards the wrist — you can easily find the thick bundle of tissue that is the “common extensor tendon.” Perfect Spot No. 5 is just a little further down, as the tendon turns into muscle.
Here’s another way of visualing the location: imagine a wrist watch that you're wearing really high on your arm ... almost at your elbow, but not quite. About and inch or two away. Perfect spot #5 is about where the face of the watch would be if you were wearing a watch that high on the arm.
Perfect Spot No. 5 is one of those Perfect Spots that is not alone in the area. You can find significant TrPs nearly anywhere in the muscles on the back of the forearm! Perfect Spot No. 5 is simply the best of the lot.
An easy way to self-treat this spot is to press it into a hard surface — the rounded edge of a counter top is about the right height and shape. It won’t take much experimentation for you to figure out exactly where to press! As always, go slow and easy at first to avoid aggravating it.
The Tiger Tail Rolling Muscle Massager (made by Polar Fusion, in Washington state) is terrific for self-massage of the arms and legs, and I’ve used it mostly for my shins over the past year. And then I learned that I’ve been missing an “obvious” and lovely way of using it to massage the forearms as well: just brace one end on the hip, hold the other with one hand, and then moving the other arm across the roller. Suddenly it’s my new best friend! My forearms are chronically exhausted by long days of typing.
It is really just a specialized rolling pin, made for squishing muscle instead of dough. There is no question that I thought of (and tried) using an actual rolling pin for self-massage long, long before I’d heard of the Tiger Tail. But a rolling pin tends to be too hard, too broad, and too fragile (the handles tend not to be sturdy enough, unless you’ve got a really good quality rolling pin) for most massage purposes. The Tiger Tail solves these issues: it’s got a foam cover on a narrow cylinder, and it’s extremely sturdy.
This product is a perfect case study in how the right tool can make all the difference: I can self-massage my own arms with this tool effortlessly compared to trying to do the job with hands or any other tool. It’s easy to apply and control plenty of pressure.
The momentum of the racquet is considerable with every strike. The forearm extensors must contract eccentrically to slow the racquet down. If they didn’t, the wrist would snap forward (flex) violently, out of control. So the muscles on the back of the forearm are contracting to slow down and control wrist flexion.BACK TO TEXT
Trigger point therapy isn’t too good to be true: it’s just ordinary good. It can probably relieve some pain cheaply and safely in many cases. Good bang for buck, and little risk. In the world of pain treatments, that’s a good mix.
But pain is difficult and complex, no treatment is perfect, and there is legitimate controversy about the science of trigger points. The phenomenon of sensitive spots on the body is undeniable … but their nature remains somewhat puzzling, and the classic image of a tightly “contracted patch” of muscle could just be wrong. On the one hand, you can measure their electrical activity, take samples of their highly acidic tissue chemistry, and now a new MRI-like technology can now show them as well. On the other hand, some of that may be wrong, and all of it could essentially just be “side effects” of a more basic problem. No one really knows.
What we do know is that people hurt. Muscle pain is clinically significant, but medically obscure. As Dr. David Simons wrote, “Muscle is an orphan organ. No medical speciality claims it.” Many patients can benefit from educating themselves.
The Perfect Spots are based on a decade of my own clinical experience as a massage therapist, and years of extensive science journalism on the topic. Want to know more? This is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve written a whole book about it …
Under the back of the skull must be the single most pleasing and popular target for massage in the human body. No other patch of muscle gets such rave reviews. It has everything: deeply relaxing and satisfying sensations, and a dramatic therapeutic relevance to one of the most common of all human pains, the common tension headache. And no wonder: without these muscles, your head would fall off. They feel just as important as they are. Read more.
|for pain: almost anywhere in the head, face and neck, but especially the side of the head, behind the ear, the temples and forehead||related to: headache, neck pain, migraine||muscle(s): suboccipital muscles (recti capitis posteriores major and minor, obliqui inferior and superior)|
This Perfect Spot lives in the “thoracolumbar corner,” a nook between your lowest rib and your spine — right where the stability of the rib cage gives way to the relative instability of the lumbar spine. Muscle tends to bunch up around this joint between the last of the thoracic vertebrae and the first of the lumbar. The sweet spot consists of trigger points in the upper-central corner of the quadratus (square) lumborum muscle and in the thick column of muscle that braces the spine. Read more.
|for pain: anywhere in the low back, tailbone, lower buttock, abdomen, groin, side of the hip||related to: low back pain, herniated disc||muscle(s): quadratus lumborum, erector spinae|
Perfect Spot No. 3 is in your shins — seemingly an unlikely place for muscle knots! But there is meat there, and if you’ve ever had shin splints then you know just how vulnerable that meat can be. Even if you’ve never suffered so painfully, your shins probably still suffer in silence — latent trigger points in the upper third of the shin that don’t cause symptoms, but are plenty sensitive if you press on them. Read more.
|for pain: in the shin, top of the foot, and the big toe||related to: shin splints, drop foot, anterior compartment syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome||muscle(s): tibialis anterior|
Deep within the Anatomical Bermuda Triangle, a triangular region on the side of the neck, is the cantankerous scalene muscle group. Massage therapists have vanished while working in this mysterious area, never to be seen again. The region and its muscles are complex and peculiar, and many lesser-trained massage therapists have low confidence working with them. Read more.
|for pain: in the upper back (especially inner edge of the shoulder blade), neck, side of the face, upper chest, shoulder, arm, hand||related to: thoracic outlet syndrome, lump in the throat, hoarseness, TMJ syndrome||muscle(s): the scalenes (anterior, middle, posterior)|
When you have back pain, buttock pain, hip pain, or leg pain, much or even all of your trouble may well be caused by trigger points in the obscure gluteus medius and minimus muscles, a pair of pizza-slice shaped muscles a little forward of your hip pocket. Other muscles in the region are usually involved as well, such as the gluteus maximus, piriformis, and the lumbar paraspinal muscles. However, the gluteus medius and minimus are a bit special: their contribution to pain in this area is particularly significant, and yet people who have buttock and leg pain rarely suspect that much of it is coming from muscle knots so high and far out on the side of the hip. Read more.
|for pain: in the low back, hip, buttocks (especially immediately under the buttocks), side of the thigh, hamstrings||related to: sciatica, trochanteric bursitis, low back pain||muscle(s): gluteus medius and minimus|
Your masseter muscle is your primary chewing muscle — not the only one, but the main one — and it covers the sides of the jaw just behind the cheeks. It’s also the main muscle that clenches your jaw and grinds your teeth, unfortunately, and it’s one of the most common locations for trigger points in the entire human body. It is probably an accomplice in most cases of bruxism (that’s latin for “grinding your teeth”) and temporomandibular joint syndrome (a painful condition of the jaw joint), plus other unexplained painful problems in the area. Read more.
|for pain: in the side of the face, jaw, teeth (rarely)||related to: bruxism, headache, jaw clenching, TMJ syndrome, toothache, tinnitus||muscle(s): masseter|
A lot of quadriceps aching, stiffness and fatigue emanates from an epicentre of “knotted” muscle in the lower third of the thigh, in the vastus lateralis, a huge muscle — one of your biggest — that dominates the lateral part of the leg. Stretching it is effectively impossible, but massage is an option: although often shockingly sensitive, Perfect Spot No. 8 can also be quite satisfying. It’s also often complicates or contributes to other problems in the area, especially runner’s knee (iliotibial band syndrome). Read more.
|for pain: in the lower half of the thigh, knee||related to: iliotibial band syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome||muscle(s): quadriceps (vastus lateralis, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris)|
The “pecs” are popular muscles. Of the 700+ muscles in the human body, the pectoralis major is one of the dozen or so that most people can name and point to. It also harbours one of the most commonly-encountered and significant — yet little known — trigger points in the human body, and can produce pain much like a heart attack in both quality and intensity. Read more.
|for pain: anywhere in the chest, upper arm||related to: “heart attack,” respiratory dysfunction||muscle(s): pectoralis major|
The tenth of the Perfect Spots is one of the most popular of the lot, and right under your feet — literally. It lies in the center of the arch muscles of the foot. This is one of the Perfect Spots that everyone knows about. No massage is complete without a foot massage! Read more.
|for pain: in the bottom of the foot||related to: plantar fasciitis||muscle(s): arch muscles|
This “spot” is too large to really be called a “spot” — it’s more of an area. The thick columns of muscle beside the spine are routinely littered with muscle knots from top to bottom. Nevertheless, there is one section of the group where massage is particularly appreciated: from the thick muscle at the base of the neck, down through the region between the shoulder blades, tapering off around their lower tips. There is no doubt that this part of a back massage feels even better than the rest — even the low back, despite its own quite perfect spots, cannot compete. Read more.
|for pain: anywhere in the upper back, mainly between the shoulder blades||related to: scoliosis||muscle(s): erector spinae muscle group|
At the top of the gluteal muscles lies a Perfect Spot among Perfect Spots: a sneaky but trouble-making brute of a TrP that commonly forms in the roots of the gluteus maximus muscle, just below the pit of the low back, but experienced as low back pain. This is the kind of spot that the Perfect Spots concept is really all about — not only does it tend to produce a profound and sweet ache when massaged, but the extent of the pain that spreads out around it is almost always a surprise. Read more.
|for pain: in the lower back, buttocks, hip, hamstrings||related to: low back pain, sciatica, sacroiliac joint dysfunction||muscle(s): gluteus maximus|
Some of the Perfect Spots are perfect because they are “surprising” — they aren’t where you thought they’d be, and it’s delightful to discover the real source of pain. Others are perfect because they are exactly where you expect them to be — and what a relief it is to be able to treat them. Perfect Spot No. 13 is perhaps the ultimate, the quintessential “right where I thought it was” trigger point: right at the very bottom of the thick columns of muscle, in the “pit” of the low back. Read more.
|for pain: in the low back, buttocks, hamstrings||related to: low back pain, sciatica, sacroiliac joint dysfunction||muscle(s): erector spinae muscle group at L5|