Human touch is not a luxury. It is a biological necessity — infants starved of touch fail to meet growth standards — and a powerful tool. Touch builds cooperative relationships and improves immunity. It increases pleasure hormones and reduces stress hormones. And touch in the form of massage — even self-administered — can relieve muscle tension generated by physical and emotional stress, thus improving the health of our bodies and minds.
Why our muscles are knotted
Few people have perfect posture. Those of us who work on our feet often stand swaybacked. Those of us who work at desks push our heads forward and hunch our shoulders, and sit so long that our hips become tight. Over time, our muscles get stuck in the memory of those positions.
Muscles remember emotions, as well. Our muscles’ natural reaction to stress is to contract to protect us from harm. When the threat disappears, our muscles let go. Chronic stress, when the muscles never relax, can lead beyond discomfort to physical and mental disorders.
[You’re never too old to regain that lost muscle. And you can do it at home.]
What and where are trigger points?
A muscle knot, or trigger point, is a contraction within a muscle that refused to release. The pain can be localized or radiate to other parts of the body. For example, a trigger point in a neck muscle you don’t feel may be responsible for the pain in your jaw you do feel. The good news is that, through massage, we can release trigger points before our bodies start compensating elsewhere.
If you don’t have a partner, you can press on or roll your trigger points with your fingers, knuckles or a tennis or massage ball. Don’t spend more than five seconds on one spot, because this cuts off blood flow and prevents healing.
Do you have chronic headaches? Check your sternocleidomastoids, the ropy neck muscles that extend from just behind the ear to the collarbone. Looking down at a keyboard or screen creates trigger points along the muscle that refer pain into the forehead, ears or cheeks. Gently pinch the muscle between your thumb and forefinger and roll it like a piece of taffy. Work your way up the entire rope.
The levator scapulae, or shoulder-shrugger muscles, can sometimes feel locked up, eliciting pain in the neck and shoulders. To reach them, wrap an arm around yourself to touch the top inside corner of your opposite shoulder blade. Press on the knots and roll back and forth with your fingers. Or place a ball between your shoulder and a wall to get at these trigger points.
If a body is seated with rounded shoulders for long periods of time, the pectoralis major muscles collapse and grow tight, potentially causing shortness of breath or pain in front of the shoulder and down the inside of the arm. To reach these muscles, run your fingers or knuckles just below your collarbone from the center outward (move away from a space if you feel a pulse). Or, while standing, pin a ball between your chest and the wall with your arm outstretched to roll out this area.
If you’re standing at a counter or at a desk without your core engaged, you may feel pain in your low back or buttocks. The source could be a trigger point in your quadratus lumborum, two muscles that sit on either side of your spine between your pelvis and your lowest rib. Lie on the floor with your knees bent. Secure the ball at your lower back and gently roll along tender spots.
Pain in your lower back also could be emanating from trigger points in your buttocks. To get into the meaty gluteus maximus muscles, sit on a ball and roll in all directions. Lean back to roll just below the hip bone. For more pressure, prop the foot of the side you are rolling out on the opposite knee (figure four position).
Tight calf muscles (try rolling them out with a ball) can cause muscles in the feet to knot up. Use your fingers to press into your arch or roll on a golf ball you’ve chilled in the freezer. If left untreated, these knots can lead to a kind of tendinitis in the foot called plantar fasciitis.
Partner massage tips
Giving a massage isn’t just a nice thing to do; it can decrease anxiety for the giver. If you offer massage to your partner or housemate, start out easy and ask for specific feedback, i.e., “Do you want more pressure or less?” Use broad strokes with the palm of your hand and move in one direction, ideally toward the heart. Add a dime-size drop of lotion to your hands to improve glide.
This super ordinary but sensitive area is a great starting point. Explore the spaces between the bones — the home of 30 tiny muscles and thousands of nerve endings. To address a common trigger point in the hand, pinch the meaty muscle (the thenar eminence) between the thumb and forefinger and squeeze. This muscle gets overworked with our smart devices.
As if working at our desks all day wasn’t enough to ignite pain in our shoulders, most people complain of holding stress here. Standing behind your seated partner, massage the upper trapezius muscles like you’re kneading dough, gently pinching the muscles between your thumb and fingers. If the person is comfortable with more pressure, bend your arm and insert an elbow on the trigger point.
The forward head posture of staring at screens all day, whether you are sitting or standing at a desk, causes the tiny but mighty suboccipital muscles to shorten and tighten, which can lead to chronic headaches. While your partner is lying down, cradle his or her head in your hands and wrap your fingers under the ridge of the skull. Press your fingers up and back under the ridge for a few seconds like you are gripping a barbell. Release, move your hands outward along the ridge and press again.
Typing at a keyboard for hours creates tension in the forearm muscles and elbow joints. To smooth out these taut strings, have your partner rest an arm on a hard surface. Form a soft fist and use your knuckles or the base of your palm to gently roll out the muscles from the wrist to the elbow on the inside and outside of the forearm. Long-term tension in the forearm muscles can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
About the story
Design and illustrations by Elizabeth Hart. Reference images from iStock.
Disclaimer: This instruction is for general informational purposes, and is not a substitute for medical treatment of any significant injury.