What is trigger point massage therapy? This is a common question regarding a massage therapy technique often referred to as “trigger point release (TPR)”. In our clinic, in approximately 90% of the massage therapy treatments given, trigger point release techniques are being used. But lets first define what a trigger point is, and then we can describe the therapy technique of releasing them.
A trigger point is a clinical name given to describe “hyperirritable spots in skeletal muscle that are associated with palpable nodules in taut bands of muscle fibers” (Travell, 1992). So in other words, a focal point within the tissue that is painful, and is most commonly described as a “knot” in the muscle. Now of course the tissue is not “tied in a knot”, but a skilled Registered Massage Therapist or Chiropractor will be able to feel and isolate this “mini-spasm” within the tissue.
Trigger points are significant because they alter the function of the muscle tissue. The muscle will be tighter, weaker, and create a pattern of pain that often refers to other areas. Have you ever had a headache from working at a computer too long? That could likely be the referred pain of a trigger point you feel, often in the neck or shoulders. Identifying the cause of a trigger point is probably the most significant clinical finding about it – that trigger points are not normal, and they will often point to an underlying cause such as poor posture, repetitive movement or strain, over-exertion, and sometimes the guarding response of a deeper underlying injury. Somatic (muscle) pain can be very debilitating and limiting, and a skilled practitioner will consider and test many factors when making an examination.
The most common clinical technique in our clinic of releasing a trigger point is through what is called an ischemic compression. An ischemic compression is when the therapist isolates the trigger point, and compresses it with pressure (often using a thumb to be precise). When compressed, the trigger point’s pain referral is often heightened temporarily, but quickly eases as the tissue releases. Ischemia means “a restriction in blood supply”, so by limiting blood supply to the trigger point through this compression technique, the muscle is deprived of essential nutrients (such as O2) needed to continue to contract and the result is that the tissue relaxes. The physiological response is of course a bit more complex, but this is essentially the basis for trigger point release technique. By releasing the trigger point, the pain is relieved, tightness decreases, and the tissue begins to function normally.