The next morning, you wake up and realize the back of your shoulder blade feels stiff. When you rub your shoulder muscles, it feels like you’re prodding a little gumball under your skin. Every time you try to move it around, the area feels tight, with slight pangs of pain.
Over the course of the next few days, your back slowly loosens up and eventually your shoulder returns to feeling normal. It’s probably something you’d like to avoid or minimize in the future if possible, though. So what was going on with that muscle knot?
Some of the most common questions I’ve heard during my years as a personal trainer and researcher in this field involve muscle knots. What are they, and how can you get rid of them when they happen?
What are muscle knots?
When your muscle gets damaged — even just a little — it can cause inflammation in the bands of muscle and the fascial layer above. And that clump of inflamed tissue is a myofascial trigger point. The little lumps are typically 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 within the muscle that cause this reaction.
Myofascial trigger points tend to develop when a muscle is irritated by a new or more-strenuous-than-usual repetitive motion. For example, you may develop knots in the muscles you stressed the most during a particularly intense day of exercise. They can also crop up if you introduce a new movement pattern to your daily workout.
Imagine adding a couple of days of running to your typical weekly routine of just lifting weights. Since running is a new movement, you may notice some knots in your calves, which you asked to do a lot of new work.
You don’t need to be a gym rat, though, to be familiar with muscle knots. For instance, if you are consistently hunched over a computer all day, you may notice knots developing in your upper back and shoulders. Most people wouldn’t consider sitting at a desk strenuous, but holding one position for hours at a time places stress on your muscles. Enter muscle knots.
How do you get rid of muscle knots?
For example, if you have knots in the quadriceps muscle group on 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 like, you’re able to work within your own pain tolerance — a benefit, since it can be uncomfortable to alleviate myofascial trigger points. You can use this technique across the body anywhere you have muscle knots.
While they can be annoying, muscle knots are nothing to worry about. Remember, being consistent with exercise habits and moving throughout the day can help keep knots from developing in your muscles in the first place. If you do notice muscle knots popping up, simply stretching at the end of the day or going through some self-myofascial release techniques are simple, effective ways to help alleviate this issue and avoid future problems.
Zachary Gillen is an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Mississippi State University. Gillen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond an academic appointment. Mississippi State provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.