How to get rid of muscle knots?

The next morning you wake up and realize that the back of your shoulder blade feels stiff. When you rub your shoulder muscles, it feels like you’re poking a gumball under your skin. Every time you try to move it, the area feels tight, with minor pain.

Over the next few days, your back will slowly loosen up and eventually your shoulder will feel normal again. However, it is probably something you want to avoid or minimize in the future, if possible. So what was going on with that muscle knot?

I am an exercise physiologist. The goal of much of my research is to understand how different movements and forms of exercise put stress on the muscles. Devising programs to maximize performance, regardless of the training goal, goes beyond what you need to do during training – it is also about how to best prepare for and recover from the stress exercises on the body.

Some of the most common questions I’ve heard during my years as a personal trainer and researcher in this field relate to muscle knots. What are they and how can you get rid of them if they occur?

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What are muscle knots?

The knots you notice in your muscle that can feel as small as a marble or even as big as a golf ball are called myofascial trigger points. The fascia is the thin layer of connective tissue that surrounds the muscle.

When your muscle gets damaged — even just a little — it can cause inflammation in the muscle bands and the fascial layer above. And that lump of inflamed tissue is a myofascial trigger point. The small lumps are usually tender to the touch and can limit your range of motion or lead to pain during various movements. Muscle knots don’t show up on medical imaging scans, and researchers are still trying to figure out the exact physiological mechanisms in the muscle that trigger this response.

Myofascial trigger points tend to develop when a muscle is irritated by a new or more strenuous than usual repetitive movement. For example, you may develop knots in the muscles you stressed the most during a particularly intense day of training. They can also crop up if you introduce a new exercise pattern into your daily workout.

Imagine adding a few days of running to your typical weekly weightlifting routine. Since running is a new movement, you may notice some knots in your calves, prompting you to do a lot of new work.

You don’t have to be a gym rat to be familiar with muscle knots, though. For example, if you consistently sit in front of a computer all day, you may notice knots forming in your upper back and shoulders. Most people wouldn’t consider sitting at a desk strenuous, but holding one position for hours on end strains your muscles. Enter muscle knots.

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How do you get rid of muscle knots?

One of the simplest solutions to the muscle knot problem is to simply wait. It takes the muscles time to adapt to a new movement or to recover from stress. Usually, a muscle knot will go away on its own within a week or two.
Getting a massage is an option to speed up recovery if you have muscle knots.
You can also help speed up the recovery process. Some options include massages; dry needling, in which a thin needle is injected into the trigger point to try to break down some of the tissue and increase blood flow to the area; and even electrical stimulation. The goal of each technique is to reduce the tightness of the fascia and muscles in the area and increase blood flow. More blood passing through provides nutrients and oxygen to the damaged tissue, aiding recovery.
While these techniques are worth considering, there are other more cost-effective things you can do yourself at home. A fairly simple way to relieve muscle knots is stretching. Stretching can be especially valuable if you sit in an awkward position all day. Muscles held under constant stress for several hours benefit from different ranges of motion. For example, after sitting for a while, some simple shoulder rolls and neck rotations can relieve some of the tension in those muscles, preventing or reducing the build-up of muscle knots.
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Another method you can try at home is self-myofascial release. The idea behind it is the same as massaging, except this method can be done in the comfort of your own home using a foam roller, a rolling device, a hard ball such as a lacrosse ball or softball, or even a small piece of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC , pipe.
To reduce muscle knots, lie on a foam roller and gently roll your leg back and forth on it.

For example, if you have knots in the quadriceps muscle group in the front of your thigh, you can lie on a foam roller and gently roll your leg back and forth on it. Alternatively, you can roll the device up and down the muscle group, keeping the pressure within your comfort range. Because you apply as much pressure as you want, you can work within your own pain tolerance—an advantage, as it can be uncomfortable to relieve myofascial trigger points. You can use this technique anywhere on the body where you have muscle knots.

While they can be annoying, muscle knots are nothing to worry about. Remember that being consistent with exercise habits and exercising throughout the day can help prevent knots in your muscles. If you notice muscle knots popping up, simple, effective ways to alleviate this problem and prevent future problems are simply stretching at the end of the day or going through some self-myofascial release techniques.

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The conversation

Zachary Gillen is an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Mississippi State University. Gillen does not work for, consult, hold stock in, or receive funding from, any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations outside of an academic position. Mississippi State provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

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