A “trigger point” is a slang term used to describe an irritable, localised area of dysfunction in a muscle. What makes a trigger point unique is that it refers pain in a characteristic pattern. That is, it sends a pain signal to a different location and this location is often predictable (depending on the dysfunctional muscle).
What causes a trigger point?
Trigger points are the result of overuse. They can occur in muscles that are subjected to obvious use, like the legs of a marathon runner. Perhaps less obvious but quite common, are the trigger points that form in postural muscles. These areas of dysfunction occur because of the constant low level demand placed on them, such as the muscles in the shoulder and neck after slouching at a computer desk.
What happens to the muscle?
A trigger point makes a muscle short and weak. Sometimes they can affect a person’s movement.
Types of Trigger Points
There are two major types of trigger points; latent and active. Latent trigger points are not usually painful unless someone pushes on the area or unless you move in a way that stimulates the muscle. An active trigger point is painful even without touching it or moving it.
How do you diagnose a trigger point?
There really aren’t any diagnostic tests for a trigger point (that are usually necessary at least). Trigger points are usually palpable by the practitioner. As previously mentioned, a trigger point (by definition) refers pain in a characteristic pattern and increases pain locally with pressure.
There are various treatment approaches for muscular trigger points. Massage therapy, acupuncture, active release technique and graston technique are all common methods for treatment. In most cases, rehabilitative exercises are important to not only reverse the muscular aggravation, but to change the function of an area so that the muscle does not become overused in the future. In the same line of thinking, activity modification may be helpful in avoiding overuse of an area.
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Hyde TF, Gengenbach MS. Conservative Management of Sports Injuries 2nd Ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning 2007.