I’ve heard of trigger point therapy before. What is it?
Trigger point therapy, often referred to as myofascial release or pressure point massage, involves the application of gentle yet firm pressure to specific areas along the body, known as pressure or trigger points. This pressure is provided by the hands of a skilled physical therapist trained in pressure point release. Sometimes, a therapist may choose to use certain devices or tools to assist with force application.
The manual pressure provided by a therapist during trigger point therapy is intended to relax and normalize trigger points within the fascia, a widespread, sheath-like, fibrous tissue encasing your musculoskeletal structures. Fascia, which is normally pliant and flexible, is important for protecting muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and nerves and helps them move together in a coordinated way. However, when stress, injury, poor posture, repetitive movement, or poor nutrition or hydration is imposed on the body, the fascia can become inelastic and stiff. This restricts the normal movement of the connective tissues beneath, leading to pain, immobility, and even an increased risk of injury.
To this end, trigger point therapy is intended to “release” the tension and stress in the fascia and other structures within targeted treatment areas, thus restoring normal movement, relieving pain, and reducing your risk of further tissue damage.
What and where are trigger points?
You probably know what a knot feels like: an area that feels uncomfortable, stiff, dense, and maybe even tender. Indeed, “knots” are essentially synonymous with trigger points, although they may not always be overtly obvious or noticeable.
Trigger points can happen anywhere in the body and are especially common in the shoulders, back, and hips. As mentioned, the connective tissue within these areas exhibit increased tension and stiffness, often as a result of stress, illness, or injury. Muscle fibers may tense up in spasms and there may be a decrease in oxygenated blood or lymphatic flow to the area, as well, all of which can contribute to localized stiffness and discomfort.
Interestingly, trigger point pain can often be referred from other parts of the body. A buildup of scar tissue or a joint misalignment, for instance, may lead to pain or spasm in a nearby muscle. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to consult with a physical therapist if you’re struggling with pressure point pain, since there may be more to the symptoms than meets the eye.
What conditions may benefit from myofascial release?
Fascial tissue is located throughout your body, so adhesions and activated trigger points anywhere within this tissue can affect a wide number of physiological systems and structures. Our physical therapy team has found myofascial release to be effective for numerous conditions, including:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Medial and lateral epicondylitis (golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow, respectively)
- Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder)
- Headaches and migraines
- Neck pain
- Back pain
- Thoracic outlet syndrome
- Temporo-Mandibular Joint (TMJ) disorder
How does cupping therapy work?
Cupping therapy may be the in thing now, but it’s not anything new. It was used by the ancient Middle Eastern, Chinese and Egyptian cultures. Cupping is actually an ancient form of alternative medicine where cups are put on the skin to create suction. In a way, these cultures were ahead of their time. Today, it’s used to help with relaxation, blood flow, pain and inflammation. Some think of it as a deep-tissue massage.
How Cupping Therapy Is Done
A physical therapist puts a flammable substance like herbs or alcohol in a cup and set it on fire. When the fire subsides, the cup is then placed upside down on your skin. When the inside air in the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. It causes the skin to rise and the blood vessels to expand. A more contemporary version of this treatment utilizes a rubber pump rather than fire to create a vacuum. Sometimes, silicone cups are used to create a massage effect.
Why Cupping Therapy Is Done
Physical therapists may sometimes use cupping as a technique of tissue distraction release. The cups are glided across different areas to lift and separate tissue. It enhances the release of the interfaces between the neural tissues, fascia, skin, ligaments, muscles and tendons. Some patients with myofascial pain report resolution of pain after just one session. There is also some evidence to suggest that cupping techniques are effective for chronic neck pain, low back pain and fibromyalgia. It has also been shown to relax muscles, release trigger points, improve lymphatic flow, increase local circulation and release scar tissue adhesion.
The three cupping techniques are longitudinal, cross fiber and circular. The longitudinal technique is the most common, and the cup is glided longitudinally across the muscle fibers. The cross fiber technique is used when it is believed that the tissue is scarred. The circular technique is used at the end of the session to ensure that all areas were covered.
Cupping therapy is popular among athletes. Numerous athletes from the Olympics in Rio 2016 used cupping. An athlete patient with over a year history of iliotibial band (ITB) pain reported instant relief following a three minute session of cupping. The technique was repeated a week later. Following only two cupping sessions, he was symptom free and returned to his usual running. What can we learn? Cupping therapy may potentially be more effective than techniques that focus on further compressing down on soft-tissues that are hypothesized to be tight.
There’s real science behind cupping therapy. By creating suction with negative pressure, it can increase hydration and blood to body tissues, ease up adhesions, rid excess fluids and eliminate connective tissues. It’s a versatile treatment and can be modified from deep tissue release to lymphatic drainage. This modality is sometimes used in physical therapy and medical massage.
Cupping should not be performed on skin sites with wounds, infection, burns or active inflammation. Sometimes, it can create bruises on the skin that can last up to two weeks. Bruises typically resolve themselves with time.
Other Benefits of Cupping
Cupping can boost skin health, help with respiratory issues and improve digestion. It’s been used to speed up recovery from the flu and common colds by improving immunity. It also reduces symptoms from disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Ready to make an appointment?
We always encourage our patients to stay well-hydrated both before, during, and after treatment. Water is essential to helping your body heal, and the effects of both active and passive therapeutic services (including pressure point massage) are amplified when you drink plenty of fluids. Aim for one third to one half your body weight in fluid ounces per day, or more if you exercise a lot or have a physically demanding job.
Are you struggling with acute or chronic pain? Request an appointment or free screening at Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, East Kalamazoo, Holland, Mattawan, Midtown (Downtown Kalamazoo), Plainwell, Portage, Richland, Schoolcraft, and Three Rivers clinics to learn more about myofascial release and other drug-free and non-invasive techniques. We’re happy to connect you with a physical therapist who can help you start feeling better as soon as possible.