SaveYourself.ca •Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries
 
[Illustration of full body muscle anatomy showing hot spots representing painful trigger points in common locations.]

Are you plagued by muscle knots? 

Save Yourself from Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain Syndrome

A guide to the science of muscle pain, with reviews of every possible self-treatment and therapy option, even for the most difficult cases

122,500 words, updated Jul 8th, 2014 — What’s new?
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for sassy, skeptical, referenced analysis and a huge bibliography. I am a runner and ultimate player, and live in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. • full bioabout SaveYourself.ca
& Tim Taylor, MD

This is an online e-book: an extremely detailed, scientifically current and practical tour of the science of muscle pain and “trigger points.” It’s written for both patients and professionals. What are the controversies and myths about muscle pain? What works for muscle pain, what doesn’t, and why? Get many troubleshooting ideas for even the toughest cases — much more than the popular but aging Trigger Point Therapy Workbook,1 and much more readable than the famous Travell texts.

Many people suffer from sensitive spots in muscle, often called trigger points or muscle knots. And yet trigger point therapy is not rocket science!2 You just need a good selection of rational options: creative tips, tricks, insights and perspectives, based on recent science and years of clinical experience.

Learning even a little about trigger points can solve more pain problems more easily than anything else I know of. If you feel like you have chronic muscle pain, if you have stubborn and unexplained aching and stiffness … please keep reading!

I am a science writer & amateur athlete in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve been writing about muscle pain for over a decade, in part to understand & manage my own chronic pain problems. ~ Paul Ingraham
About footnotes. There are 287 footnotes in this document. Click to make them “pop up” without losing your place. There are two types: interesting extra content, and boring reference information.1Footnotes with more interesting and/or fun extra content are bold and blue, while dry footnotes (citations and such) are lightweight and gray. Type ESC to close footnotes, or re-click the number.

2“Boring” footnotes usually contain scientific citations from my giant bibliography of pain science. Many of them actually have pretty interesting notes.

Example citation:
Berman et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain. New England Journal of Medicine. 2010. PubMed #20818865. ← That symbol means a link will open in a new window.
Try one!

Trigger point therapy is not a miracle cure for chronic pain — but it helps

Trigger point therapy isn’t “too good to be true” — it’s just ordinary good. It’s certainly not miraculous or a cure for all pain.3 Good trigger point therapy is hard to find (or even define), and it doesn’t always work.4 But it’s also generally under-rated, and self-treatment has the potential to quickly, cheaply and safely help with many common pain problems that don’t respond well — or at all — to anything else.5

For beginners with average muscle pain — a typical case of nagging hip pain or low back pain or neck pain — the advice given here may well seem almost miraculously useful. I get avalanches of email from readers thanking me for pointing out simple treatment options for such irritating problems. Many are stunned by the discovery that their chronic pain could have been treated easily all along.

For veterans who have already tried — and failed — to treat trigger points, this document is especially made for you. You need more advanced methods before giving up. This will get you as close to a cure as you can get; I can give you a fighting chance of at least reducing your pain more than ever before. And maybe that is a bit of a miracle.

Does your body feel like a toxic waste dump?

It may be more literally true than you realized! Some evidence shows that a knot may be a patch of polluted tissue: a nasty little cesspool of waste metabolites. If so, it’s no wonder they hurt, and no wonder they cause so many strange sensations: it’s more like being poisoned than being injured. Back pain is the best known symptom of the common muscle knot, but they can cause an astonishing array of other aches and pains. Misdiagnosis is much more common than diagnosis.

Does your body feel like a toxic waste dump?

It may be more literally true than you realized! Some evidence shows that a knot may be a patch of polluted tissue: a nasty little cesspool of waste metabolites. If so, it’s no wonder they hurt, and no wonder they cause so many strange sensations: it’s more like being poisoned than being injured. Back pain is the best known symptom of the common muscle knot, but they can cause an astonishing array of other aches and pains. Misdiagnosis is much more common than diagnosis.

What exactly are muscle knots?

When you say that you have “muscle knots,” you are talking about myofascial trigger points.

There are no actual knots involved, of course — it’s just a metaphor. Although their true nature is uncertain, the main theory is that a trigger point (TrP) is a small patch of tightly contracted muscle, an isolated spasm affecting just a small patch of muscle tissue (not a whole-muscle spasm like a “charlie horse” or cramp9). That small patch of knotted muscle cuts off its own blood supply, which irritates it even more — a vicious cycle called “metabolic crisis.” The swampy metabolic situation is why I think of it as “sick muscle syndrome.”

A “muscle knot” is a trigger point: a small patch of muscle tissue in spasm.

A collection of too many nasty trigger points is called myofascial pain syndrome (MPS).

Individual TrPs and MPS can cause a shocking amount of discomfort — far more than most people believe is possible — as well as some surprising side effects. Its bark is much louder than its bite, but the bark can be extremely loud. More about worst case scenarios below.


Why muscle pain matters so much

Muscle pain matters: it’s an important problem. Aches and pains are an extremely common medical complaint,10 and trigger points seem to be a factor in many of them.1112 They are a key factor in headaches (probably including migraine and cluster headaches as well1314), neck pain and low back pain, and (much) more. What makes trigger points clinically important — and fascinating — is their triple threat. They can:

  1. cause pain problems,
  2. complicate pain problems, and
  3. mimic other pain problems.

Trigger points can cause pain directly. Trigger points are a “natural” part of muscle tissue.15 Just as almost everyone gets some pimples, sooner or later almost everyone gets muscle knots — and you have pain with no other explanation.

Trigger points complicate injuries. Trigger points show up in most painful situations like party crashers. Almost no matter what happens to you, you can count on trigger points to make it worse. In many cases they actually begin to overshadow the original problem.

Trigger points mimic other problems. Many trigger points feel like something else. It is easy for an unsuspecting health professional to mistake trigger point pain for practically anything but a trigger point. For instance, muscle pain is probably more common than repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), because many so-called RSIs may actually be muscle pain.16 A perfect example: shin splints.17

The daily clinical experience of thousands of massage therapists, physical therapists, and physicians strongly indicates that most of our common aches and pains — and many other puzzling physical complaints — are actually caused by trigger points, or small contraction knots, in the muscles of the body.

The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, by Clair Davies and Amber Davies, p2

How can you trust this information about muscle pain?

I question everything and I have fun doing it. I assume that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. I make no big promises, and I do not claim to know the “one true cause” of trigger points. When I don’t know something, I admit it. I actually read scientific journals, I clearly explain the science behind every key point (there are more than 290 footnotes here), and I always link to the original sources.

And I’m afraid trigger point science is not what it could be. In fact, it’s a bit shabby.18 As a doctor friend of mine put it, they are “under-explained.” Trigger points are not a flaky diagnosis — they are far from quackery19 — but they’re not exactly solid ground either. You can read more about the trouble with trigger point science in a separate article, Trigger Point Doubts.

None of that is a deal-breaker, though: muscle pain is still an important topic, and trigger points are just a way to try to describe whatever is really going on. And everyone agrees that something painful is going on. So all the more reason to have a rational tour guide to take you through the subject. What’s useful in the theory of trigger points? What’s half-baked and obsolete? Who disagrees with who and why? I cover all of this — and I’m not afraid to step on some toes along the way. What matters is the truth. Carl Sagan: “I don’t want to believe. I want to know.” And some much less famous than Sagan: “A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.” Trigger point science may be a mess, but it also isn’t over.

Why are trigger points so neglected by medicine?

“Muscle is an orphan organ. No medical speciality claims it.”20 Muscle tissue is the largest organ in the body, complex and vulnerable to dysfunction, and the “primary target of the wear and tear of daily activities,” nevertheless “it is the bones, joints, bursae and nerves on which physicians usually concentrate their attention.”21 Family doctors are particularly uninformed about the causes of musculoskeletal aches and pains22 — it simply isn’t on their radar. They are busy with a lot of other things, many of them quite dire. As serious as muscle pain can be, it’s minor compared to, say, diabetes or heart disease. And it’s also a harder topic than it seems to be on the surface. So it’s not really surprising that doctors aren’t exactly muscle pain treatment Jedi.

What about medical specialists? They may be the best option for serious cases. Doctors in pain clinics tend to know about trigger points. But they also often limit their treatment methods exclusively to injection therapies — a bazooka to kill a mouse? — and anything less than really epic chronic pain won’t qualify you for admittance to a pain clinic in the first place. This option is only available to patients for whom trigger points are a truly horrid primary problem, or a major complication. Medical specialists may know quite a bit about muscle pain, but aren’t all that helpful to the average patient.

An appallingly high percentage of doctors and other practitioners are still pretty much out of the loop regarding trigger points.

The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, by Clair Davies and Amber Davies, p2

Physical therapists and chiropractors are often preoccupied to a fault with joint function, biomechanics,23 and exercise therapy. These approaches have their place, but they are often emphasized at the expense of understanding muscle pain as a sensory disorder which can easily afflict people with apparently perfect bodies, posture and fitness. A lot of patient time gets wasted trying to “straighten” patients, when all along just a little pressure on a key muscle knot might have provided relief.

Massage therapists have a lot of hands-on experience of muscle tissue, but know surprisingly little about myofascial pain syndrome. Their training standards vary wildly. Even in my three years of training as an RMT (the longest such program in the world24), I learned only the basics — barely more than this introduction! Like physical therapists and chiropractors, massage therapists are often almost absurdly preoccupied with symmetry and structure. The right hands can give you a lot of relief, but it’s hard to find — or be — the right hands.

No professionals of any kind are commonly skilled in the treatment of trigger points. Muscle tissue simply has not gotten the clinical attention it deserves,25 and so misdiagnosis and wrong treatment is like death and taxes — inevitable! And that is why this tutorial exists: to help you “save yourself,” and to educate professionals.

Those clinicians who have become skilled at diagnosing and managing myofascial trigger points frequently see patients who were referred to them by other practitioners as a last resort. These patients commonly arrive with a long list of diagnostic procedures, none of which satisfactorily explained the cause of, or relieved, the patient’s pain.

Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, by David Simons, Janet Travell and Lois Simons, p36

Does your trigger point therapist have the big red books?

The Big Red Books

Must-have text books for any therapist treating trigger points.

In addition to many scientific papers, this tutorial is based on medical textbooks like the massive two-volume set, “the big red books” — aaaMyofascial Pain and Dysfunction26 — and “the blue book, Muscle Pain27 These are not easy reading!28

They don’t contain all the answers, but anyone who claims to treat muscle pain should still have the big red books books in their office — they are just too historically important not to have. If you don’t see dog-eared copies, ask about them — it’s a fair, effective and polite way to check a therapist’s competence. Muscle Pain (the blue one) is just as important. I highly recommend it to any professional who works with muscle (or should). It’s more recent, and it covers a much wider range of soft tissue pain issues, putting trigger points in context.

A brief note about the relationship between fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome

Fibromyalgia (FM) causes you to “hurt all over” — widespread chronic pain, and decreased pain threshold. It is also associated with fatigue, sleep disturbance, and “fibro fog” (mental confusion). It is defined by its symptoms,29 because we don’t know what actually causes it — so people have pain, but “no one has FM until it is diagnosed.”30 Here’s a good 1-minute primer on fibromyalgia from One-Minute Medical School:

Although unexplained, FM may be a more clearly neurological disease, while MPS may be more of a dysfunction of muscle tissue — and it would be nice if such a clear difference were proven someday. Fibromyalgia & myofascial pain syndrome are harder to tell apart than mischievous twins who deliberately impersonate each other.FM and MPS syndrome are both imperfect and imprecise descriptions of closely related sets of unexplained symptoms, which makes them harder to tell apart than mischievous twins who deliberately impersonate each other. They may be two sides of the same painful coin, or different parts of a spectrum of sensory malfunction. They may simply be describing different parts or stages of the same process, and some cases are probably nearly impossible to tell apart — and then they change. Add to that the fact that both conditions are controversial to the point where some people deny they even exist, and it’s understandable that they get confused.

Fibromyalgia’s famous “tender points” are the most confusing part of all, but they are a very different idea than trigger points. Trigger points describe localized pain in almost any location, which can come and go like the weather, but there are just a few (18) official, specific tender points that are persistent features of FM — literally by definition. If you don’t have the tender points, you don’t have the diagnosis!

Whatever the causes or labels, therapy for MPS seems to be helpful for some FM patients as well,31 although pure FM cases seem to be mostly immune to massage.32 But this book is still useful for many FM patients, insofar as it overlaps with our main topic. Dr. Taylor’s advice about medical causes of pain are especially helpful; his wife is also a doctor and has fibromyalgia and has gotten considerable relief from the recommendations shared here. So this is not a fibromyalgia book, per se … but I certainly hope it’s of interest to fibromyalgia patients.

Trigger points may explain many severe and strange aches and pains

This is where trigger points really get interesting. In addition to minor aches and pains, muscle pain often causes unusual symptoms in strange locations. For instance, many people diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome are actually experiencing pain caused by a muscle in their armpit (subscapularis).33 Seriously. I’m not making that up!

This odd phenomenon of pain spreading from a trigger point to another location is called “referred pain.” The neurology will be explained in detail below. Here are some other examples of interesting referred pain leading to misdiagnosis:34

  • Sciatica (shooting pain in the buttocks and legs) is often caused by pain in the piriformis or other gluteal muscles, and not by irritation of the sciatic nerve. Many other trigger points are mistaken for “some kind of nerve problem.”
  • Earaches, sinusitis, toothaches, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and dizziness may be symptoms of trigger points in the muscles around the jaw, face, head and neck.35
  • A sore throat or a lump in the throat is often caused or aggravated by trigger points anywhere around the throat.36
  • “Appendicitis pain” often turns out, sometimes after surgery, to be caused by a trigger point in the abdominal muscles. Wow.
  • Severe MPS is often mistaken for fibromyalgia (and other causes of pain hypersensitivity).

Sometimes trigger points cause such severe symptoms that they are mistaken for medical emergencies. I treated a man for chest and arm pain — he had been in the hospital for several hours being checked out for signs of heart failure, but when he got to my office his symptoms were relieved by a few minutes of rubbing a pectoralis major muscle trigger point. The same trigger point sometimes raises fears of a tumor. Here’s a particularly excellent example sent to me by a physician who had this experience:

I narrowly escaped a breast biopsy because of trigger points in the pectoralis major. I’d had bad chest pain for a month. I was on the table, permit signed, draped. The doctor wasn’t sure: she said she wanted another mammogram. I left confused, relieved … but still hurting.

Then I lucked out: my regular internist was puzzled, but thought it might be “soft tissue.” That made me go to a physical therapist. The physical therapist pulled out the big red books on trigger points, and we read together. Treatment was a complete success. A month-old severe pain that I had been treating with ice packs in my bra and pain-killers — gone!

Janice Kregor, competitive swimmer, retired pediatrician and medical school instructor

Another client once spent three days in hospital for severe abdominal pain that doctors couldn’t diagnose — her pain was mostly and quickly relieved by massaging a trigger point in her psoas major muscle.37

I once suffered a dramatic case of a “toothache” that was completely relieved by a massage therapist the day before an emergency appointment with the dentist: a particularly vivid experience.

However, the vast majority of symptoms caused by myofascial pain syndrome are simply the familiar aches and pains of humanity — millions of sore backs, shoulders and necks. Some of which can become quite serious.

Is this like you?

Muscle knot pain can be savage. Over the years I have met many people who were in so much pain from muscle dysfunction that they could hardly think straight. Is muscle pain “trivial”? Not if you have it!

Is this like you?

Muscle knot pain can be savage. Over the years I have met many people who were in so much pain from muscle dysfunction that they could hardly think straight. Is muscle pain “trivial”? Not if you have it!

Two typical tales of trigger point treatment

The relationship between trigger points and mild-to-moderate pain is often so straightforward that therapy is nearly effortless. One of the nice things about working with trigger points is that sometimes they do make me seem like a miracle worker, because they are such a clinical “slam dunk” for garden variety persistent pain — pain undiagnosed and untreated by a string of other health professionals.

For instance, Lois McConnell of Vancouver came to see me complaining that she’d had moderate, chronic back pain for several years. She’d received some common misdiagnoses, particularly sacroiliac joint dysfunction.38 But she had a prominent gluteus maximus trigger point39 that, when stimulated, felt exactly like her symptoms — a deep ache in the region of the low back and upper gluteals. In just three appointments, her pain was completely relieved. She was quite pleased, I can tell you!

Just wanted to give you a quick update … my back has been absolutely fine. Unbelievable … or perhaps not, considering what I’ve learned from you! A big thank you for all your help.

Lois McConnell, retired airline executive, suffered chronic low back and hip pain for a few years

Or consider Jan Campbell. Jan developed a hip pain sometime in early 2004 during a period of intense exercising. The pain quickly grew to the point of interfering with walking, and was medically diagnosed as either a bursitis or a piriformis strain. I did not believe that either of these could be the case, and treated a trigger point in her piriformis muscle once on June 12, 2004. Her symptom was 100% relieved for about eight months, before it slowly began to reassert itself (as trigger points often do, despite our best efforts — more about that to come).

One trigger point therapy treatment completely relieved a nasty stubborn hip pain that I'd had for five months!

Jan Campbell, retired French language teacher, Palm Springs, recovered easily from several months of hip pain

Every trigger point therapist has a seemingly endless list of such treatment success stories. Although most such cases involve relatively minor symptoms, this is not to say that they were minor problems. In almost every such case, the pain was relatively mild but extremely frustrating and persistent for many years, then relieved easily by a handful of treatments — an incredible thing, when you think about it. So much unnecessary suffering!

The myth of the trigger point whisperer

Can a good enough massage therapist remove all trigger points in a session? Is there such a thing as a “trigger point whisperer”?

I got this question by email recently, and it shows a common theme: the optimistic/desperate quest for the mystique of the magic super therapist who can fix anything in an hour or two. The idea is an annoyance to all honest, humble therapists who know better … and more or less impossible to believe if you know the basics about pain and muscle knots. The skill of a therapist is only one relatively minor factor among many that affect the success of massage therapy for trigger points — or any therapy, for any pain problem.

Trigger points are not little switches that can be flicked off (“released”) by anyone who has sufficiently advanced technique — they are a mysterious, cantankerous, complex phenomenon. Even the best therapists can be defeated by a no-win situation.40 And nearly any therapist can luck out and get great results with the occasional patient when all the planets are aligned: sometimes trigger points respond well to virtually any intervention. It really depends.

Think about the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, for comparison. Can a good enough dog trainer “train any dog in a hour”? Not if the dog is traumatized, sick, and/or injured, and requires hours of smart, gradual conditioning! It depends on the situation. Is Cesar good? Is he fast? He sure is. But he’s also humble and knows his limits — which is a large part of why he’s good.

It depends, it depends, it depends. This is a major theme in this document, and it is why I am dedicated to teaching concepts and principles, not treatment recipes and formulae — and that’s why it’s an important thing to cover in the introduction.

Part 2

Diagnosis

How can you tell if trigger points are the cause of your problem?

Trigger points have many strange “features” and behaviours, and can easily be confused with many other problems. Because of their medical obscurity and the half-baked science, they are often the last thing to be considered in spite of their clinical importance and many distinctive characteristics. There are several things you can look for that will help you to feel more confident that, yes, muscle pain is the problem instead of something else. The next several sections will discuss all of them in detail.

Whether you knew it or not, you were probably already familiar with trigger points even if you’d never heard of them before starting this tutorial.

Almost everyone has a head start in self-diagnosing trigger points, because almost everyone already more or less knows what it’s like to have a muscle knot. If you have ever had muscle stiffness, wrenched your neck around trying to stretch and wiggle your way free of discomfort, or gotten a friend or partner to dig into that annoying spot in your back, then you already have some experience with this — you have trigger points. You have pain and stiffness that feels like it’s in your muscles.

But there may be many things you don’t yet know about how trigger points behave and feel…

END OF FREE INTRODUCTION

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TABLE OF CONTENTS PREVIEW
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Q Does your tutorial include diagrams showing common trigger points?

A Yes, thirteen classic trigger points are explored, the “Perfect Spots” for massage, accounting for about 75% of common pain problems. Other reference material is reviewed and recommended, especially the best free online option, The Trigger Point Symptom Checker.

Q Will the tutorial solve my problem? What if it doesn’t?

A Maybe! But, naturally, I can’t guarantee “results” … and I don’t want to. I don’t believe in giving false hope, and trigger point therapy is far from perfect. My goal is to give you the best chance of success, and help you avoid wasting your time and money on bollocksy therapies. If that’s not worth $20, I should get out of the publishing business.

Q Does the tutorial include information on [insert your pain problem]?

A Probably not! Many specific pain problems are mentioned, but the book doesn’t go into detail about any of them. Once you understand the nature of trigger points, you don’t really need me to spell out their relationship to every common injury. Trigger points cause and complicate all injuries in quite predictable ways — that’s why they are clinically interesting!

Q Why not The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook?

A One of the better books out there about trigger points is Clair Davies’ mostly excellent The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. There is one thing in particular that The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook offers that this tutorial deliberately lacks: detailed, muscle-by-muscle reference material. His book is a better reference book than this document is.

Davies’ book is excellent in many ways, but it doesn’t teach principles and it makes too many promises.

Davies’ book is excellent in many ways, but it doesn’t teach principles and it makes too many promises.

Instead of reference material, this tutorial offers many advanced troubleshooting concepts that can’t be found in Davies’ book at all. Challenging cases of myofascial pain require good understanding of the nature of the problem and clear guiding principles … not one-size-fits-all treatment recipes.

I have met many patients who got a lot of benefit from The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, got them started on the path to self-treating muscle pain … but then they couldn’t take it all the way. The book particularly does not help people successfully troubleshoot difficult cases.

My main beef with Davies is that he promises too much, giving the impression that self-massage is an infallible cure — trigger point therapy is great stuff, but it isn’t that good. His over-the-top enthusiasm is a serious flaw. It sets patients up for disappointment, and it alienates sensible doctors.

Davies’ over-the-top enthusiasm sets patients up for disappointment.

This tutorial has a more realistic tone, and is the superior resource — in my completely biased opinion! — for people who are struggling with more serious trigger point pain.

See my full review of The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook for more information.

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Part 2.1

Appendices

Acknowledgements

This document and all of SaveYourself.ca was, for many years, created in my so-called “spare time” and with a lot of assistance from family and friends. Undying thanks to my wife, Kimberly, for countless indulgences large and small, and for being my “editor girlfriend”; to my parents for (possibly blind) faith in me, and much copyediting; and to Mike Gobbi, buddy and digital mentor, for many of the nifty features of this document (hidden and obvious). And thanks to all of the above, and many others, for many (many) answers to “what do you think of this?” emails.

Thanks finally to every reader, client, customer, and big tipper for your curiosity, your faith, and your feedback and suggestions and stories. Without you, all of this would be pointless.

And a few thanks to some health professionals who have been particularly inspiring to me: Dr. Steven Novella, Sam Homola, DC, Dr. Harriet Hall, Simon Singh, and Dr. Stephen Barrett.

Thank you finally to Dr. Tim Taylor, MD, author of this book’s vital sections about medical factors that perpetuate pain, new as of the summer of 2010. More than a collaborator, Tim is an idealistic and decisive volunteer, who didn’t just offer to contribute to this book, but made it happen quickly and well and all for the sake of helping people. In twenty years of writing and publishing, I have never seen a collaboration go that smoothly, and I am extremely grateful for it.

Reader Comments

Here is what some readers have said about the trigger points tutorial over the years. Feedback is always welcome. I focus on the positive in this section, but I want to acknowledge that I certainly do receive some criticisms as well. In many cases I respond by making improvements to the tutorial. However, the vast majority of feedback is enthusiastic. Thanks, everyone!


Just wanted to say how great a job you’ve done on all this stuff. People claim they know about trigger points, but the majority really, really don’t. If I didn’t become my own doctor I’d be in a really dark place right now. What you’re doing is really important. I still have the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook and Travell and Simons’ “big red books,” but you offer some really important commentary and reality checks missing from both of those sources.

— J.M., chronic pain sufferer


If every disorder had such a well written self-diagnostic and treatment guide we'd be a lot closer to manageable spending on health care. Thanks.

— Timothy Trutna, programmer with chronic muscle pain, California


I purchased the low back tutorial recently and got the free trigger point one also. Many thanks. They are great! I had already accessed the perfect spot series and have been working on my trigger points. It is very pleasing to have the full discussion on the chemistry and physiology, and I now have a much better idea about the whole ghastly business.

— Leah Brannen, Saskatoon, Canada


I owe you many thanks. Your tutorial has given me great hope. I was extremely discouraged and frustrated by the issues I was having, but I experienced more relief in my first session with a trigger point therapist than I did in 12 weeks of physical therapy.

— Ryan Luke, MA, CSCS, Department of Kinesiology and Health, Georgia State University


From Allan’s review of my trigger point book: “The thing that really jumps out at me about Paul's trigger point tutorial is the fairly mind-boggling amount of research he has done. It's pretty incredible. It's obvious that he does his homework. It's obvious that he's been doing it for many years. And yet it's not a boring or academic document. He keeps it surprisingly light and fun while simultaneously explaining a lot of physiology and pathology.”

— Allan Saltzman, owner of YogaTools.com, maker of some fine hand-crafted tools for yoga and self-treatment


I have been suffering from lower back pain for the last 5 weeks and found your page to be very informative and interesting. I really can’t thank you enough actually because for the first time I’m really starting to feel like I’m on the right track here.

— Glenn Hill, Canterbury, Australia


Thanks to your website, I pretty much got rid of my back problems almost overnight. It’s also fun and thought provoking to read!

— Amsterdam Jeroen Strompf, MFA, Screenwriting, Chapman University


I’m really enjoying your work!

— Janice Kregor, competitive swimmer, retired pediatrician, medical school instructor



One more special comment. In the Spring of 2009, I received an incredible endorsement from Jonathon Tomlinson, a GP in Hackney, East London, praising the whole website and every tutorial:

I'm writing to congratulate and thank you for your impressive ongoing review of musculoskeletal research. I teach a course, Medicine in Society, at St. Leonards Hospital in Hoxton. I originally stumbled across your website whilst looking for information about pain for my medical students, and have recommended your tutorials to them. Your work deserves special mention for its transparency, evidence base, clear presentation, educational content, regular documented updates, and lack of any commercial promotional material.

— Dr. Jonathon Tomlinson, MBBS, DRCOG, MRCGP, MA, The Lawson Practice, London

High praise indeed! Thank you, Dr. Tomlinson — testimonials just don’t get much better than that.


What’s new in this tutorial?

A major feature of my tutorials is that I actively update them as new science and information becomes available. Unlike regular books, and even ebooks — which can be obsolete by the time they are published, and can go years between editions — this tutorial is updated at least once every three months and often much more. I also log updates, making it easy for readers to see what’s changed. This tutorial has gotten 71 major and minor updates worth logging since I started logging carefully in late 2009, and countless more minor tweaks and touch-ups.

Minor update (Jul 8 '14, section #9.20)New footnotes about the theory of acupuncture/trigger point overlap. See section #9.20, How about acupuncture?

Science update (Jul 7 '14, section #9.19)And, so sorry, it’s bad news. See section #9.19, Maybe stabbing will help! How about Dry Needling, AKA Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS) therapy?

Science update (Mar 19 '14, section #6.5)Added evidence about the effect of massage on fibromyalgia. See section #6.5, The relationship between trigger points and other physiological disorders and diseases, especially fibromyalgia.

Editing (Jan 16 '14, section #3.2)General revision for quality. Added the cheek-bite analogy story for colour. See section #3.2, One: The vicious cycle (why trigger points are stubborn).

Editing (Jan 16 '14, section #3.1)General revision for quality. See section #3.1, The dance of the sarcomeres.

Minor update (Jan 5 '14, section #3.10)Added a story about phantom limb pain. See section #3.10, Referred Pain Science (basic) .

Minor update (Dec 21 '13, section #5.33)Minor but fascinating new item about the myth of anaesthetic paralysis and the dominance of the CNS over muscle tone — the kind of nifty item I just love to add to the book! See section #5.33, The surprising futility of muscle relaxants such as Robax-whatever, Valium and other benzodiazepines.

New section (Dec 13 '13, section #3.13)An introduction to one of the most important theoretical challengers to the traditional explanation for trigger points. See section #3.13, Quintner: “It’s the nerves, stupid”.

Science update (May 29 '13, section #7.5)Good news update: new study shows a clear reduction in nonspecific musculoskeletal pain after vitamin D supplementation. See section #7.5, Vitamin D deficiency.

Minor update (Mar 29 '13, section #5.31)Upgraded risk and safety information about Voltaren Gel. See section #5.31, Voltaren® Gel, an intriguing new option.

Major update (Mar 1 '13, section #8)Almost all of the stretching sections have been edited, revised, and modernized. See section #8, Stretching: Stretching is generally over-rated … but it might be good for trigger points.

Minor update (Mar 1 '13, section #1.7)Modernized and expanded a bit, a couple new references, and a generally much better explanation of what fibromyalgia is. See section #1.7, A brief note about the relationship between fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome.

Science update (Dec 7 '12, section #7.15)Added references showing connections between smoking and chronic pain. See section #7.15, Smoking.

Minor update (Dec 7 '12, section #5.7)Added a funny sidebar about bad anatomy. See section #5.7, Don’t get hung up on anatomy, and be persistent .

Minor update (Oct 25 '12, section #3)A minor case study and some science to help establish that muscle can indeed be the source of pain. See section #3, The science of trigger points: It’s a little half-baked, but at least it’s not boring.

New section (Oct 24 '12, section #8.9)No notes. Just a new section. See section #8.9, What about stretching the antagonist muscle?

Minor update (Oct 24 '12, section #2.5)Added an item about “mobile” bumps that people often mistake for trigger points. See section #2.5, Negative checklist: symptoms that are probably not caused by trigger points.

Edited (Aug 27 '12, section #2.16)Now more accurate and clearer. Edits in preparation for audiobook version. See section #2.16, Predictably unpredictable: trigger point symptoms are erratic by nature.

Major update (Jul 23 '12, section #5.37)New evidence that massage can cause “rhabdomyolysis” makes it quite a lot easier to understand a lot of negative reactions to trigger point therapy. This is valuable perspective, and the section has been heavily revised to exploit it. See section #5.37, Troubleshooting negative reactions to treatment.

Minor update (Jun 9 '12, section #3)This introduction now does a better (and more honest) job of mentioning some trigger point controversies, and links to an important companion article about them, for keener readers, Trigger Point Doubts. See section #3, The science of trigger points: It’s a little half-baked, but at least it’s not boring.

Minor update (May 2 '12, section #2.8)A minor but good: clearer, better language. Editing continues as I work on the audiobook version. See section #2.8, “Out of nowhere”: a signature symptom of trigger points.

Minor update (Apr 25 '12, section #2.4)More editing for clarity and thoroughness. This also happens to be one of the first edits I’m doing to prepare for audiobook production. See section #2.4, Slow checklist: a more detailed diagnostic checklist for myofascial pain syndrome.

Science update (Mar 28 '12, section #6.7)I revised the warning away from hydration, and included some fun new myth-busting evidence about hydration and cramping. See section #6.7, Reality checks: some self-treatments that don’t work at all (or not nearly as well as you would hope).

New section (Mar 8 '12, section #5.28)No notes. Just a new section. See section #5.28, Neutral positioning: find a comfortable muscle length and rest there.

Minor update (Mar 8 '12, section #2.5)Added an item about non-pain symptoms, like itching. See section #2.5, Negative checklist: symptoms that are probably not caused by trigger points.

Minor update (Mar 7 '12, section #5.32)Important new, skeptical footnote about the dangers of the powerful narcotic drugs. See section #5.32, The nuclear option: “Hillbilly heroin” (Oxycontin), codeine and other opioids.

Modest expansion (again). And the sassy new “muscle stabbing” section name. (Jan 12 '12, section #9.19) See section #9.19, Maybe stabbing will help! How about Dry Needling, AKA Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS) therapy?

Science update (Dec 21 '11, section #2.6)Added quite an interesting citation about the correlation (or lack thereof) between tissue hardness and sensitivity. See section #2.6, If you have trigger points, will your muscles be “tight”?

Trivial update (Dec 14 '11, section #2)Added minor but odd note about “sensory annoyances” and hats. Yes, hats. See section #2, Diagnosis: How can you tell if trigger points are the cause of your problem?

Products added (Nov 11 '11, section #5.15)Three new product reviews, and some miscellaneous revision of the section. See section #5.15, Beyond the tennis ball: commercial massage tools.

Updated (Oct 16 '11, section #9.15)Added new references to fascia science about the toughness and contractility of fascia, and some interpretation. This is also supported by a substantial new free article, Does Fascia Matter? See section #9.15, How about myofascial release and fascial stretching?

New section (Aug 26 '11, section #7.15)No notes. Just a new section. See section #7.15, Smoking.

Minor update (Aug 26 '11, section #7.10)Added a paragraph about magnesium. See section #7.10, Vitamin B1, B2, folate, and magnesium deficiencies.

New section (Aug 26 '11, section #1.10)No notes. Just a new section. See section #1.10, The myth of the trigger point whisperer.

New section (Jul 13 '11, section #8.8)Some new thoughts about how stretching for trigger points might work — quite different from the mainstream theory — inspired some new stretching science. See section #8.8, What about neurology? Stretch tolerance.

Major rewrite (Jul 13 '11, section #3.14)This might as well be a new section — not only did I re-write it, I gave it a completely new purpose. Previously the “bamboo cage” was a minor metaphor used to illustrate a possible mechanism for sensitization of muscle tissue. Now it is the basis of an extended and (I think) interesting exploration of how the concept of trigger points might actually be debunked. Pretty weighty stuff, but delivered with a major effort to make it interesting to any reader. Hope you enjoy it! See section #3.14, “The bamboo cage” — what immobilization torture can tell us about the nature of muscle pain and massage.

Minor update (Jul 12 '11, section #7.5)Added an interesting observation about how Vitamin D supplementation might work. See section #7.5, Vitamin D deficiency.

Minor update (Jul 12 '11, section #2.4)Miscellaneous editing and improvements, plus a couple new items. See section #2.4, Slow checklist: a more detailed diagnostic checklist for myofascial pain syndrome.

Minor update (May 30 '11, section #9.7)Added some basic information about the damage that “ugly pain” can actually do, inspired by a recent anecdote received from a reader. See section #9.7, Pain in three flavours: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Science update (May 7 '11, section #7.5)The Vitamin D advice provided to readers has not changed, but the science supporting it has been dramatically beefed up — more science, new science, better summarized — to confirm that D supplementation is a safe and sensible option for patients. See also the separate article, Vitamin D Safety for Pain Patients. See section #7.5, Vitamin D deficiency.

Major update (Apr 20 '11)Major improvements to the table of contents, and the display of information about updates like this one. Sections now have numbers for easier reference and bookmarking. The structure of the document has really been cleaned up in general, making it significantly easier for me to update the tutorial — which will translate into more good content for readers. Care for more detail? Really? Here’s the full announcement.

Minor update (Apr 10 '11, section #5.32)Edited to distinguish more clearly between “dependence” and “addiction,” to reduce alarmism about addiction or contributing to the excessive stigma against opioids. (Thanks to reader Evelyn D. for pointing out the issue to me — a good example of how readers contribute to the improvement of this tutorial.) See section #5.32, The nuclear option: “Hillbilly heroin” (Oxycontin), codeine and other opioids.

Minor update (Mar 22 '11, section #9)Updated the disclaimer (sidebar) about my “conflict of interest.” I no longer have it, since I am retired from my massage therapy practice. See section #9, Getting Help: How do you find good therapy for your trigger points?

Minor update (Feb 3 '11, section #5.5)Added evidence showing that trigger point therapy improved ankle range of motion. See section #5.5, New evidence that squishing trigger points works at least a little.

Minor update (Feb 3 '11, section #2.5)Added a checklist item about muscle wasting. See section #2.5, Negative checklist: symptoms that are probably not caused by trigger points.

Major update (Dec 30 '10, section #9.13)Previously this section discussed ultrasound rather generally, without much discussion of the science; it is now beefed up with a thorough, fun discussion of the somewhat squishy evidence. See section #9.13, How about ultrasound therapy? (ESWT and “Sonic Relief™”).

Minor update (Dec 30 '10, section #1)Added an interesting footnote about the Google Book Ngram for “trigger points.” See section #1, Introduction.

Many minor repairs (Dec 1 '10)A large batch of minor errors and glitches were corrected today, thanks to the sharp eyes of readers Effie and Doris.

Modest expansion (Nov 25 '10, section #9.19) See section #9.19, Maybe stabbing will help! How about Dry Needling, AKA Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS) therapy?

New section (Oct 6 '10, section #8.2)Not just for customers: this particular section is a short version of a new free article. See section #8.2, Case study: A cautionary tale of stretching: that time I almost ripped my own head off.

Major update (Sep 23 '10, section #7)Numerous repairs and upgrades to all of Dr. Taylor’s sections of the book, especially links to the clinics that Dr. Taylor recommends, some new charts, and a colorful anecdote about drinking blood (seriously). Thanks to several readers, and especially Elaine M., for their assistance with this. It’s quite amazing how the new chapter is driving immediate refinements. People read it and write to ask questions, and that spurs little email debates between me and Dr. Taylor, a trip to PubMed for more evidence or detail, or a clarification wrangle with the language ... and the results get put into the book within hours or even minutes … so cool! As reader Bill C. put it, “Your books are alive!” It does kind of feel like that. See section #7, Medical Factors That Perpetuate Pain: The effect of statin drugs, nutritional and hormonal deficiencies, infections, and inflammatory diseases.

Many new sections (Sep 20 '10, section #7)An important new chapter (with several sections) by Dr. Tim Taylor. This is the first major collaborative effort on SaveYourself.ca, and I’m extremely proud of it, and pleased with how well it went. See section #7, Medical Factors That Perpetuate Pain: The effect of statin drugs, nutritional and hormonal deficiencies, infections, and inflammatory diseases.

New section (Sep 15 '10, section #5.5)I’m delighted to add a whole small new section about evidence of the efficacy of trigger point therapy. See section #5.5, New evidence that squishing trigger points works at least a little.

Minor update (Sep 15 '10)I’ve done a bunch of work to continue integrating Dr. Taylor’s new chapter into the book: discussing perpetuating factors wherever they are relevant, and linking to the chapter. Thus there are many more spots in the book now where the importance and relevance of Dr. Taylor’s contribution is emphasized.

New cover (Aug 6 '10)At last! This e-book finally has a “cover.” SHOW

Corrected (Jul 20 '10, section #3.18)Fixed some wrong science about hydrogen bonding and tissue adhesions. Hat tip to reader and chemist K.D. for the good catch. See section #3.18, The science of adhesions: atoms stick to each other.

Minor update (Jul 7 '10, section #5.33)Updated the muscle relaxant section with a summary of a bizarre experiment with muscle relaxants that had quite surprising results. See section #5.33, The surprising futility of muscle relaxants such as Robax-whatever, Valium and other benzodiazepines.

Minor update (Jun 25 '10, section #1.8)Added a nice anecdote from a doctor about a trigger point that was almost mistaken for a possible tumor. See section #1.8, Trigger points may explain many severe and strange aches and pains.

New section (May 26 '10, section #11.3)This is a major upgrade to the presentation of SaveYourself.ca’s own Perfect Spots series of articles. They have always been here, but perhaps not presented in as useful a way as they could have been. I’ve also made many upgrades to the articles themselves over the last 2 months. See section #11.3, Appendix C: The Perfect Spots.

New section (May 26 '10, section #11.2)Describes a new partnership with the publishers of the best online reference available. See section #11.2, Appendix B: The Trigger Point Symptom Checker.

New section (May 26 '10, section #11.1)Reviews and recommendations of other sources. See section #11.1, Appendix A: Trigger Point Reference Materials or: Diagrams, Diagrams, Diagrams!

Major update (May 25 '10)A weakness of this tutorial has finally been eliminated: reference material! Where are the trigger points? Although this is still not an encyclopedia of trigger points, and it never will be (by design), the book now helps readers find specific trigger point information in three new ways, in three new sections.

Many minor repairs (May 17 '10)No specific update today, but a particularly large dose of editing love, with my thanks to reader Elaine M. for pointing out several errors that got me started. Elaine received some free product for her assistance, of course, and so can you if you send me any more than a few error reports.

Minor update (Apr 17 '10, section #9.1)Improved description of physiatrists (a medical speciality). See section #9.1, Types of therapists and doctors and their relationship to trigger point therapy.

New section (Apr 3 '10, section #11.4)Finally, I’ve added a (free) appendix of online resources related to trigger point therapy. Better late than never? See section #11.4, Appendix D: Trigger Point Therapy Resources.

Tiny update (Feb 13 '10, section #5.33)Tiny-but-interesting: I added some pretty good evidence that a muscle relaxant was no better for injured neck muscles than ibuprofen. See section #5.33, The surprising futility of muscle relaxants such as Robax-whatever, Valium and other benzodiazepines.

New section (Jan 19 '10, section #3.9)No notes. Just a new section. See section #3.9, The evolution of muscle pain: does muscle “burn out”?

Minor update (Jan 19 '10, section #3.8)A little revision, slight expansion. See section #3.8, The all-powerful acne analogy.

Major update (Jan 12 '10, section #2.20)Section heavily revised, improved, and expanded. See section #2.20, Worst Case Scenario 2: Rare but extremely severe cases of myofascial pain syndrome.

Major update (Jan 12 '10, section #2.19)Section heavily revised, improved, and expanded. See section #2.19, Worst Case Scenario 1: Being triggery.

Minor update (Jan 7 '10, section #5.37)A small but significant update on nutrition, based on Bischoff-Ferrari et al, which basically boils down to a recommendation to take vitamin D — it might help. See section #5.37, Troubleshooting negative reactions to treatment.

Older updatesListed in a separate document, for anyone who cares to take a look.

Notes

  1. The most popular trigger point book for patients is still the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, by Clair Davies. It has some qualities, but it’s also simplistic and out of date. It was never more than an introduction to the subject, and many years of new scientific evidence left it in the dust for a long time. I believe there is a new edition now, which I have not read yet. It may be scientifically current, but that’s a bit of a long shot.

    Many people have written to me over the years to tell me how the Workbook did not really do the trick for them, but this tutorial did. The Workbook’s qualities and limitations are reviewed more thoroughly below.

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  2. Here’s a funny quote:

    Rocket science isn’t all that difficult. It’s not brain surgery.

    a rocket scientist

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  3. Big promises are common on the internet, and it’s a problem when a treatment method or product is presented as being “good for” nearly any kind of pain problem. There are too many kinds of pain for any one idea to work for all of them. BACK TO TEXT
  4. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The reality is harsh, a major downer. I will get back to this: the difficulties pain patients face in getting good, effective care is an serious and complicated problem. I’ll deal with it in considerable detail later on in the book. In particular, I’ll do my best to substantiate the accusation that a lot of care is poor quality — which many professionals take exception to, of course. BACK TO TEXT
  5. Commenting on two fascinating 2008 research papers (Chen and Shah), Dr. David Simons wrote, “Currently, consideration of the possibility of a myofascial trigger point component of the pain complaint is commonly not effectively included in the differential diagnosis and therefore is missed cold turkey, which can be very expensive for the health care system (expensive examinations looking for a phantom diagnosis) and disastrous to the patient (wrong diagnosis, wrong treatment).” BACK TO TEXT
  6. There is a bit of “neato” in any good research. Making it understandable and interesting for all kinds of readers is simply a matter of expressing that. BACK TO TEXT
  7. It’s not certain that this is the case, nor why it would be. However, there is certainly plenty of suggestive evidence. Consider a recent Spanish study (Jiménez-Sánchez et al): studying health surveys of the population of Spain, researchers looked for changes in rates of serious musculoskeletal pain since the early 90s, finding that it “increased from 1993 to 2001, but remained stable from the last years (2001 to 2006). BACK TO TEXT
  8. Simons writes, “Many authors through the years have ‘discovered’ a ‘new’ muscle pain syndrome ….” For instance, the popular Dr. John Sarno is still stubbornly calling it “tension myositis syndrome” to this day, the term he invented when he “discovered” MPS. Such discoveries are akin to Columbus ‘discovering’ America … much to the surprise of the natives. MPS has been named for the anatomical neighbourhood that a particular researchers happens to find it in. It has been thoroughly confused with fibromyalgia. It has been called fibrositis and muskelharten and myofascitis and myelgelosis. It has been stuck with the labels non articular or soft-tissue, rheumatism, osteochondrosis, and tendomyopathy. Every last one of them is a historical artifact. BACK TO TEXT
  9. Other muscle injuries are often confused with trigger points. But a trigger point is not a regular whole-muscle spasm, or a “muscle strain” (torn muscle), which is an actual rip in muscle tissue that occurs suddenly and is instantly very painful. The differences will seem more obvious as you learn more about trigger points. BACK TO TEXT
  10. Smith. Prevalence and Distribution of Musculoskeletal Pain Among Australian Medical Students. Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain. 2007.

    It’s amazingly difficult to find hard data on the prevalence of musculoskeletal problems. However, this Australian study of medical students found that almost 90% of them had some kind of body pain problem, mostly in the neck, lower back and shoulders — and these are young people. It may not be an exaggeration to say that virtually the entire population of planet Earth has musculoskeletal pain!

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  11. Simons et al. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, pxi. Or, as stated more eloquently and authoritatively by Drs. Travell and Simons, “Myofascial trigger points are a frequently overlooked and misunderstood source of the distressingly ubiquitous musculoskeletal aches and pains of mankind.” BACK TO TEXT
  12. Much more recently than in the previous footnote, in 2008, Dr. Simons writes: “Currently, consideration of the possibility of an MTP component of the pain complaint is commonly not … included in the differential diagnosis and therefore is missed cold turkey, which can be very expensive for the health care system (expensive examinations looking for a phantom diagnosis) and disastrous to the patient (wrong diagnosis, wrong treatment).” BACK TO TEXT
  13. Fernández-de-Las-Peñas et al. The role of myofascial trigger points in musculoskeletal pain syndromes of the head and neck. Current Pain & Headache Reports. 2007. PubMed #17894927. This important review of the scientific literature on the relationship between trigger points and neck and head pain generally found that there is not much literature to review. Interestingly, the authors do note that there is more evidence “that both tension headache and migraine are associated with referred pain from trigger points.” BACK TO TEXT
  14. Calandre et al. Myofascial trigger points in cluster headache patients: a case series. Head & Face Medicine. 2008. PubMed #19116034.

    Although this research was “preliminary and uncontrolled” and is not powerful enough to prove anything, its results were certainly noteworthy — the sort of results that can inspire more research, hopefully. All of 12 patients with chronic cluster headaches (a kind of migraine, nicknamed “suicide headaches”) had myofascial trigger points, and treating them (with injection) produced “significant improvement in 7 of the 8 chronic cluster patients.” The authors speculate that trigger points are not the cause of cluster headaches, but a nasty complicating factor: “chronic pain or repeated acute pain sensitize muscular nociceptors creating active trigger points which, in turn, contribute to potentiate headache pain. This kind of vicious cycle explains why the number of active trigger points has been found to be higher in patients with chronic primary headaches than in healthy subjects or in patients experiencing less frequent headache attacks.”

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  15. I believe that trigger points may be a by-product of the “volatility” of muscle. It’s a truism of engineering that the chance of a breakdown goes up with the number of moving parts. Muscle tissue is more powerful and biologically complex than most people give it credit for, and like any finely-tuned machine, perhaps it breaks down easily. I suspect that we get trigger points as a relatively small price to pay for having high-functioning muscle tissue, an evolutionary compromise. Higher function would require an escalating risk of dysfunction. Reduced function would probably result in fewer trigger points … but also in weaker and less responsive muscle. BACK TO TEXT
  16. Office Place RSIs Decreased in 1994. InteriorsAndSources.com. 1996.

    Estimates of the incidence of repetitive strain injuries generally range from 3-6% of all cases requiring time away from work. In comparison, MPS is ubiquitous. In my own clinical experience, treating RSIs represent a negligible fraction of my work, whereas MPS is either a cause or complicating factor in nearly every case I treat — including the RSIs! In 1996, Interiors and Sources magazine reported that, “the total number of serious injuries or illnesses attributed to all repetitive motion was just ... four percent of the total number of cases requiring time away from work. Of those, the majority of cases or 53 percent were recorded in the manufacturing sector ... ‘Clearly, most repetitive motion injuries are not occurring in the offices of America,’ said PJ Edington and executive director of the Center for Office Technology (COT). ‘And the so-called epidemic of office-related repetitive motion injuries reported in the media has been a clear case of misdiagnosis.’”

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  17. There are several types of shin splints, and most of them have nothing to do with trigger points. However, the meaty part of the shin — the tibialis anterior muscle — is often the culprit. At least a few seemingly unbeatable cases of shins splints can be easily treated … if you know where and how to rub the tibialis anterior muscle. BACK TO TEXT
  18. Most importantly, the rubber has never hit the road in the form of well-designed clinical trials of outcomes for patients: that is, do people actually get their pain problems solved by good quality trigger point therapy, well enough and often enough to be worth the costs? If treating trigger points works well as a therapy, then there should have been such studies more or less easily proving it many years ago — but there still aren’t. That’s a concern at this point in history. BACK TO TEXT
  19. I’d put them somewhere in the middle of the range: trigger points are nowhere near as bad as a lot of common pseudoscience and quackery gets, but they certainly do fall well short of “proven” and well understood. At worst, they may even be a bad idea — a “legitimate misunderstanding,” an idea that was reasonable 20 years ago but which now needs to be retired or heavily revised. BACK TO TEXT
  20. Simons. Foreword of The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. The full quote reads: “Muscle is an orphan organ. No medical speciality claims it. As a consequence, no medical specialty is concerned with promoting funded research into the muscular causes of pain, and medical students and physical therapists rarely receive adequate primary training in how to recognize and treat myofascial trigger points. Fortunately, massage therapists, although rarely well-trained medically [BC being one of the obvious exceptions, see Massage Therapy In British Columbia, Canada — PI], are trained in how to find myofascial trigger points and frequently become skilled in their treatment.” BACK TO TEXT
  21. Travell et al. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction. 1999. Vol 1, p13. BACK TO TEXT
  22. Doctors are unqualified to care properly for most common pain and injury problems, especially the stubborn ones, and this has been proven by other doctors: Stockard et al found that 82% of graduates lacked “basic competency” in this area. For more information, see Medical Blind Spot for Aches and Pains: Most doctors are unqualified to care for many common pain and injury problems. Especially the stubborn ones. BACK TO TEXT
  23. “Structuralism” is the excessive focus on crookedness and “mechanical” problems as causes of pain. It has been the dominant way of thinking about how pain works for decades, and yet it is source of much bogus diagnosis. Structuralism has been criticized by several experts, and many studies confirmed there are no clear connections between biomechanical problems and pain. Many fit, symmetrical people have severe pain problems! And many crooked people have little pain. Certainly there are some structural factors in pain, but they are generally much less important than messy physiology and neurology. Structuralism remains dominant because it offers comforting, marketable simplicity. For instance, “alignment” is the dubious goal of many major therapy methods, especially chiropractic adjustment and Rolfing. See Your Back Is Not Out of Alignment: Debunking the obsession with alignment, posture, and other biomechanical bogeymen as major causes of pain. BACK TO TEXT
  24. And it certainly felt like it at times. BACK TO TEXT
  25. SY Ingraham. A Historical Perspective On Aches and Pains: We are living in a golden age of musculoskeletal health care … sorta. SaveYourself.ca. 720 words. BACK TO TEXT
  26. Travell et al. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction. 1999. BACK TO TEXT
  27. Mense et al. Muscle Pain. 2000. A dense text, important reading for professionals. BACK TO TEXT
  28. And not impossible reading, either. Over the course of a decade, I have seen several keen patients tackle Travell and Simons’ massive red texts and get good value from them. The diagrams are exceptionally clear, and the writing is generally quite good. It’s not out of the question for patients to try to work with them. But they are expensive reference books, filled with jargon, and intended for clinicians who are dealing with every area of the body on a daily basis. BACK TO TEXT
  29. Here’s Dr. Fred Wolfe’s technical but readable definition of fibromyalgia, from a 2013 blog post. Dr. Wolfe is a rheumatologist with a long history of expertise about trigger points and fibromyalgia:

    Fibromyalgia is a name given to a clinical syndrome whose main features currently are the presence of chronic pain simultaneously in many areas of the body together with multiple somatic symptoms. In particular, persistent and substantial fatigue, sleep disturbance and cognitive difficulties are among the most common of the symptoms. Decreased pain threshold is almost always found, and is strongly correlated with the extent of body pain. Because the symptoms and their intensity are variable, the boundaries of fibromyalgia are somewhat indistinct. The identification of fibromyalgia is based on the overall severity of symptoms. The gold standard for necessary severity was set by the 1990 American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria: roughly, it is the level of symptoms found in persons with ≥11/18 tender points when examined by capable examiners. As fibromyalgia symptoms at less than criteria level are often found before fibromyalgia is diagnosed, it is uncertain when fibromyalgia begins. There are no consistent clinical laboratory or imaging abnormalities.

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  30. Ehrlich. Pain is real; fibromyalgia isn't. Journal of Rheumatology. 2003. PubMed #12913918.

    When one has tuberculosis, one has tuberculosis, whether or not it is diagnosed. The same is true for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hookworm infestation — really, of the gamut of diseases. But not for fibromyalgia (FM). No one has FM until it is diagnosed.

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  31. Staud. Are tender point injections beneficial: the role of tonic nociception in fibromyalgia. Curr Pharm Des. 2006. “…interventions aimed at reducing local FM pain seem to be effective but need to focus less on tender points but more on trigger points (TrP) and other body areas of heightened pain ….” BACK TO TEXT
  32. Li et al. Massage therapy for fibromyalgia: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS ONE. 2014. PubMed #24586677.

    This is a review of massage therapy for fibromyalgia that epitomizes the “garbage in, garbage out” problem with meta-analysis: there was virtually no research on this topic worth analyzing to begin with, and trying to pool the results of several weak studies is meaningless. To the extent that the study results are generally inconclusive and ambiguous, the conclusions of any review are going to have more to do with the authors’ opinions and biases than hard data. In this case, they report “significant” positive results without mentioning that they only mean “statistically significant,” and the effect size is barely-there — clinically insignificant. They also boast about traditional Chinese massage in the abstract, which is odd. And they fail to note that a much of the data did not even measure the effect on pain, just mood. So here’s my conclusion: whoopty-do. There’s really nothing here, except maybe massage for fibromyalgia being damned by faint, ambiguous praise.

    I’ve written several more paragraphs about this paper in Does Massage Therapy Work?

    BACK TO TEXT
  33. Travell et al., op.cit. (Virtually all information in this article is drawn from Travell and Simons, so I won’t cite page references for every instance.) The subscapularis case is a good example of how MPS is probably much more clinically significant than RSIs: not only is MPS a causal or complicating factor in many RSIs, it frequently imitates them and is the correct diagnosis! This is why at least some RSIs do not respond to conventional treatment. BACK TO TEXT
  34. It’s possible to richly reference this section with individual scientific papers backing up every single example of trigger points mimicking some other health problem. This kind of information is everywhere in the MPS literature. For now, here’s just one of many, a 1995 paper, “Myofascial pain syndromes — the great mimicker”. BACK TO TEXT
  35. There’s a large body of research about this, but Rocha is a good recent example. In 2007, these researchers found that “in 56% of patients with tinnitus and MTPs, the tinnitus could be modulated by applying digital compression of such points, mainly those of the masseter muscle.” And how many people with tinnitus had trigger points? Quite a few. The researchers found “a strong correlation between tinnitus and the presence of MTPs in head, neck and shoulder girdle.” BACK TO TEXT
  36. This is one I know well from personal experience: a couple of times per year, I get a disturbing achey lump in my throat, a hitch in my swallow. It used to get me worried and anxious and thinking about going to the doctor. Then I discovered that it’s closely associated with a recurring patch of sensitivity in the muscles under my jaw, in the upper throat … and it can be massaged away in about a minute. I have been doing this successfully for many years now. BACK TO TEXT
  37. The iliopsoas muscle (“illy-oh so-ass”) is a two-in-one hip flexing pair, mostly only palpable through the guts. Its clinical importance is often curiously exaggerated, but sometimes it does need a massage. For more information, see Psoas, So What? Massage therapy for the psoas major and iliacus (iliopsoas) muscles is not that big a deal. Except when it is. BACK TO TEXT
  38. As discussed above, such “structural” misdiagnoses are a common red herring, and almost always wrong. Mistaking a gluteus maximus trigger point for sacroiliac joint pain is a particularly common diagnostic error. See Massage Therapy for Low Back Pain (So Low That It’s Not In the Back) for more about this particular area. BACK TO TEXT
  39. This is one of the “perfect spots” for massage: spot #12, specifically. SHOW SPOT 12 DIAGRAM For more information, see Massage Therapy for Low Back Pain (So Low That It’s Not In the Back). BACK TO TEXT
  40. For instance, what if trigger points are present mainly due to an incurable neurological disease like fibromyalgia? There are many significant medical factors that make treatment impossible or nearly so. A much more common example is smoking, which makes treatment so difficult that my co-author, Dr. Tim Taylor, will not accept smokers as patients. BACK TO TEXT

There are 247 more footnotes in the full version of this book. I like footnotes, and I try to have fun with them.


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