What is the best self-treatment for a myofascial trigger point?

First, be certain that you actually have a trigger point. There are other, more serious problems that can mimic the referral zones of myofascial trigger points. (A referral zone is an area of pain that is caused by the trigger point, but is not necessarily in the same area as the trigger point.) See a competent doctor who can rule these factors out.

Once you have a firm diagnosis, the texts mentioned here are useful in finding the trigger points and understanding what factors cause them. Included in the books is useful, everyday advice on what actions or positions to avoid so you don’t re-activate the trigger point and thus the pain cycle. Clair Davies’ books are particularly good. For example:

The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook on Amazon.com

I also recommend Sharon Sauer and Mary Biancalana’s book on self-treatment for lower back pain:

Trigger Point Therapy for Low Back Pain on Amazon.com

In addition, the website of the NAMTPT (National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists) has a great *free* feature called the “symptom checker.” This allows you to see common areas of pain and the trigger points (and their locations) which are most likely the cause.

To release a trigger point yourself, you will need to use your fingers or some sort of compression tool. Such tools include a Backnobber or Theracane:

The Backnobber at the Backnobber Store

You can also use a simple tennis ball or racquetball.  No expensive tool is needed; some just reach “difficult” spots better.  You can also put a tennis ball in a sock to use as a compression tool against a wall.

The trigger point is suffused with muscle-fatigue chemicals and pain chemicals, which lock the affected fibers into a state where they can’t contract or expand properly. With tools such as your hands or the Backnobber, you are trying to direct blood to the trigger point. What you are not trying to do is “break it up” by rubbing across it. This can, in fact, bruise and/or irritate it.  A myofascial trigger point is not the same thing as an adhesion or scar tissue, although sometimes they coincide.

Presuming the trigger point does not include much inflammation, swelling or an entrapped nerve, here is what I’ve found works best:

  1. Heat the tissue. The connective tissue softens and the muscle relaxes more. Blood is redirected to the area through vasodilation. Sometimes, this alone is effective enough to reduce the pain.

  2. Perform compression to the trigger point. Use only enough pressure to “just feel it,” not as much pain as you can stand. If you press too hard and you tense against it, you will not gain a release. A muscle cannot tense and relax at the same time. By holding the compression steady for a minute or two, you are “showing the blood where to go.” Wait until you feel a softening or dissolving feeling in the knot (trigger point), and hold it until it feels “done.”

  3. Stretch the muscle slowly though its comfortable range. If you force the end of the stretch, you could reactivate the trigger point.

  4. Apply a non-heating, anti-inflammatory cream. I use Myoflex cream.

  5. Avoid whatever actions seem to make it worse. For help with that, see the books above.