Important update, April 2103: This 2008 article enjoyed a nice surge of fresh traffic after someone shared it on Facebook and it went a little bit viral. That’s nice … but it was pretty out of date. A lot has changed since 2008! That was probably the last year I could possibly have written something so uncritically enthusiastic about the idea of trigger points. Since then, I have learned that there is plenty of controversy about them … surprise, surprise. The science this article is about is still of interest, and I need to return to it and reconsider how reliable it is. Meanwhile, don’t accept it at face value, and particularly don’t take it to mean that rubbing trigger points is “detoxifying” — that’s not what this research means, even if it’s correct. (Note that the word “detoxification” was never here, not even in the 2008 version.) I have done a fair amount of updating here, and I have written about my trigger point skepticism elsewhere, which is where all my most current thoughts on this subject can be found.
Today’s muscle knot science news concerns their chemistry, specifically the toxicity of the tissue fluids in and around them. The science of myofascial trigger points (TPs) has been dominated for many years by the theory of a poisonous feedback loop, a vicious cycle. The idea is that knots generate a lot of tissue fluid pollution, waste products of muscle cells that are metabolically “revving” with intense contraction … and those “exhaust” molecules are then accumulating, causing pain and other symptoms, and irritating the TP even more. This is called a metabolic energy crisis, and it’s why I’ve been informally calling trigger points “sick muscle” syndrome for several years now.
This picture of a vicious cycle perpetuated by toxicity has always been just an educated scientific guess. “The feedback loop suggested in this hypothesis has a few weak links,” writes Dr. David Simons, a prominent trigger point researcher. However, some 2008 research may have firmed up the theory.
Starting with a simpler study in 2005, and then a more thorough one early this year, a group of scientists using “an unprecedented, most ingenious, and technically demanding technique” have reported that there really are irritating metabolic wastes floating around the neighbourhood of trigger points: “… not just 1 noxious stimulant but 11 of them,” Simons explains. “Instead of just a few noxious chemicals that stimulate nociceptors [pain sensors], nearly everything that has that effect was present in abundance.”
Basically, what the researchers did was analyze tissue samples from in and around trigger points and compared it with healthy muscle tissue. The differences were significant. If they are right, the tissue of TPs appears to be rotten with irritating molecules: molecules associated with inflammation, with pain, and with immune function.
Personally, I was particularly pleased to see evidence that trigger points are also strongly acidic.
I guessed that this might be the case several years ago. (The pioneer of trigger point research, Dr. Janet Travell, had already suggest the same thing, but I didn’t know that at the time.) I often told my patients that trigger points were “acidic,” because it seemed likely to be true and because … well, it just sounded good, I guess! (In those days I was not as scientifically literate as I am today, and I hadn’t noticed that I was being intellectually dishonest, presenting a sketchy theory as though it were a meaningful fact.)
Fortunately, this new research now supports that old opinion. (And Dr. Travell’s.) It doesn’t prove it, but it’s certainly noteworthy.
Trigger points really are strongly acidic which means that, for instance, it is actually plausible that deep breathing — which lowers blood acidity — could be relevant to treatment. One of the possible goals of massage therapy is to “flush” trigger points by pushing stagnant tissue fluids out, sometimes called “blanching.” Perhaps if blood arriving in the area is significantly less acidic, the trigger point will recover more easily? It’s plausible.
The research could be wrong. Scientists can be wrong. (Imagine that!)
We shouldn’t accept the results of this experiment at face value simply because it seems to confirm an idea much beloved by massage therapists. In a complicated and technical experiment, it is all too easy for researchers to find the result that they want to find — which is why independent confirmation from other experiments is always essential. To date (2013), to the best of my knowledge, this research has not been duplicated. However, I will be doing an update to this article soon and investigating more carefully.
This experiment has been criticized and dismissed by some experts. So take it all with a grain of salt for now.
Professionals are strongly encouraged to read David Simons’ analysis of both the new evidence about the chemistry of energy crisis in trigger points, as well as another new scientific article on the use of magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) imaging — a promising new way of taking pictures of muscle knots.
Simons writes that this technology “may open a whole new chapter in the centuries-old search for a convincing demonstration of the cause of MTP symptoms.”
Unfortunately, most casual readers will be stumped by Simons’ thick scientific jargon.
For much more information about muscle knots, see my tutorial for patients and professionals.
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.