What are muscular knots?
Have you ever experienced muscular pain in your back, neck or shoulders? Chances are, it was a muscle knot. Don’t be fooled by the name, as knots do not cause muscles to twist or kink. They are merely just a spasm that causes a small part of the muscle to tense up, often resulting in tenderness and pain.
Muscle knots are hard, sensitive or painful areas of muscles that tighten and contract, even when the muscle is at rest. They bring a feeling of tightness and are often found in the upper back or legs, sometimes causing pain in other areas of the body when touched. These are known as trigger points.
Aside from tightness, muscular knots may feel swollen, tense, or bumpy. They are rarely harmful, but they can be an uncomfortable way of your muscles telling you that they need some care and attention. In rare cases, knots can even be a sign of chronic (long-term) conditions.
Either way, knots are usually painful and can linger for days, or even weeks, causing discomfort that can negatively affect your daily routine.
Causes of muscular knots.
Muscle knots are usually the result of muscular irritation, often caused by a repetitive motion or holding an awkward position. Athletes often notice knots after training a particular muscle group for an extended duration.
While sports and intense activity can lead to muscular knots, so can the reverse. Sitting at a desk or driving for prolonged periods can also irritate a muscle enough for it to knot.
It is said that common causes of muscle knots include:
- Tension, stress and anxiety
- Lifting and repetitive motion related injuries
- Poor posture
- Poor diet / unhealthy eating habits
- Prolonged bed rest or sitting without moving/stretching
- Overuse of muscles
- A sedentary (stationary) lifestyle
- Maintaining an awkward position for prolonged periods, including while sleeping
Muscle knots can be found anywhere in the body, but they are most commonly found in the back, shoulders, neck and legs. They often cause symptoms in areas outside of the muscles, including:
- Jaw pain
- Muscular tension, pain or tightness
- Joint tension, pain or tightness
- Lower back irritation
- Ringing in the ears,
In some cases, a person with severe knots may also experience stress, depression and anxiety, and have difficulty sleeping.
But researchers are not entirely sure what the muscle is doing to cause pain, as muscle knots don’t show up on any scans, however, some doctors think that muscle spasms could affect blood flow, which causes the affected area to hurt. Other doctors believe that the pain may be caused by nerves that are triggered by the spasms.
How to treat and prevent muscle knots.
Depending on the severity of the muscle irritation, treating muscle knots can take time. Getting rid of knots involves breaking up the knotted tissue to calm the inflamed nerves. With a bit of patience and perseverance, you can usually manage a muscle knot at home.
Here are some of the best tricks for relaxing your muscles and in turn, preventing and relieving knotting:
Stretch. Sometimes gentle stretching exercises, or even just light movement, can relieve a muscle that has knotted from maintaining an uncomfortable position.
Stretching that elongates your muscles releases tension in your body. It is also known to prevent knots from occurring in the first place, so if you notice certain areas being more regularly affected by knots, look into stretches that isolate the muscle group and perform them regularly.
Be gentle, ensuring not force your body into any positions that feel painful. For best results, hold stretches for at least 10 seconds, releasing slowly to reduce your risk of injury. Incorporate a mix of static and dynamic stretches and focus on consistency.
Hot and cold therapy. An interchangeable combination of hot and cold sources, applied directly to the affected area, can help to relieve pain and inflammation caused by muscle knots.
Cold temperatures help to constrict the blood vessel, reducing swelling, while heat relaxes stiff muscles, relieving pain. Heat may also increase blood flow, which can promote faster healing.
For best results, alternate between hot and cold treatment, such as switching between an ice pack and a warm compress, or stick with whichever feels best. This form of treatment should be used to supplement other therapies.
Rest. Adequate rest is critical when recovering from any health conditions. Allow your body to rest if you feel muscular tension or pain, including taking a break from any activities which may be negatively contributing. Dedicate time to relaxation and ensure you are getting a sufficient amount of quality sleep.
Exercise. Light aerobic exercise increases blood flow and may assist with relieving muscle knots. Aside from stretching, yoga and pilates, walking, swimming, light rowing (ergometer) and cycling are great ways to get the heart beating. Increased blood supply helps repair damaged tissue, but caution should be given to not further aggravate any irritations.
Use a muscle rub. Muscle rubs can provide relief to sore areas, softening the area and relaxing knots. Some muscle rub creams can provide a deep heating sensation, while others provide relief through cooling.
Most muscle rubs are potent concoctions, so do a patch test when first using a new formula. This can be done by applying a small amount onto the inside of the forearm and waiting to make sure there are no adverse reactions. If there is no discomfort, the cream should be safe to apply to other parts of the body.
Massage therapy. An hour with a professional massage therapist is never a bad idea. Massage therapy increases circulation and improves blood flow, improving muscle function and helping loosen up your muscles, relieving stiffness and pain.
There are several types of massage. The type you’ll benefit from most will depend on the severity of your muscle knots and your personal preference. You may need to try several different types of massage before you find a type that you like. A skilled masseuse will be able to identify and relieve the affected areas, including those around which may contribute to the pain.
Self-massage / trigger point massage. Firm pressure encourages the muscle to release. Trigger point massages work by finding the trigger points and applying pressure. Simply find the knot and apply as much pressure as you can tolerate. You can use your hands for certain trigger points when self massaging, or you can lie on a tennis ball or foam roller to apply pressure to the hard to reach areas.
Swedish massage. A gentle massage technique that is suitable for deep pain or overly sensitive areas. Swedish massages use long strokes, kneading, and deep circular movements. Vibration and tapping are also incorporated to promote relaxation.
Deep tissue massage. A forceful massage that serves to release chronic muscle tension by targeting the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. Deep tissue massages are often used to treat muscular damage from injuries.
Sports massage therapy. A massage technique tailored for athletes for both prevention and recovery from injuries.
Physical therapy. In serious or lingering cases, physical therapy may be recommended. A physical therapist can help with identifying the underlying causes of your muscle knots and applying the best course of treatment. They can also advise you of techniques to reduce pain and prevent it from recurring.
Prevention. The following healthy habits are known to prevent muscle knots:
- Practice always maintaining a good posture throughout daily life. Sit relaxed, with your shoulders back and down, always avoiding slouching.
- Get plenty of rest, including sufficient sleep and downtime.
- Exercise daily, warming up before and cooling down after. Don’t overdo it by lifting too heavy or overexerting yourself during cardio, as this also contributes to muscles knotting.
- Don’t sit for too long, especially without taking a break. Take at least 5 minutes of every hour to get up and move during periods of extended sitting.
- Do simple stretches throughout the day to prevent muscle tightness (you don’t even have to get up to do this). See:
- Maintain a healthy and rounded diet, focusing on whole, unprocessed foods, including all necessary vitamins, minerals and balanced macronutrients.
- Consider the occasional massage to assist with muscular flexibility and relaxation.
What to do when muscle knots don’t go away.
Time and home care will usually loosen up a knotted muscle, but some people have a tendency to suffer from muscle knots, which is known as myofascial pain syndrome. Myofascial pain syndrome causes pain that lingers, or worsens, and can often be severe enough to impact sleep.
Seek professional help. If you have severe or lingering pain, or constant issues with muscle knots, talk to your doctor about treatment. They may suggest:
- Physical therapy to build muscle strength and endurance.
- Myofascial release therapy to apply gentle, yet sustained pressure into the myofascial connective tissue restrictions, easing pain and restoring motion.
- Injecting a numbing agent into the pain affected area.
- Dry needling, where thin needles are inserted into the trigger point to reduce pain.
- Acupuncture, a traditional practice that also uses needles for pain relief.
- Ultrasound waves to penetrate muscles.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS therapy, which uses low levels of electricity to relax the muscle.
It is also possible that what seems like a muscle knot is actually something else, such as a swollen lymph node. Usually there will be other symptoms that accompany a swollen lymph node, such as a cough, cold, or infection.
Consult a doctor, physical therapist, or osteopath if you want to make sure it’s a muscle knot and not something else. They can advise of possible causes for the pain.
The bottom line.
Muscle knots aren’t always avoidable, but you can always take steps to reduce your risk. Make sure you’re physically active on a daily basis. Take time to stretch, improving muscle flexibility and promoting relaxation. Experiment with the list of home remedies above and discover which lifestyle changes or treatment plans work best for you.
Leaving muscle knots untreated can cause chronic pain and lead to other health issues. See your health care provider if pain persists.
Don’t let muscular pain restrict your quality of life.
About the Author: Harrison has more than a decade of experience on, and off, the rugby field as a representative player, junior coach and part-time referee. His passion for rugby led him to studying the human body, exercise and nutrition, before being registered as an accredited Australian Personal Trainer. Although his career path has changed, Harrison’s passion for health, fitness, and Rugby will always remain.