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You’ve had a long day working at home, slaving over your laptop. Someone you love comes over and starts lovingly rubbing your shoulders (awkward if the loved one you immediately visualized was your mom), only to exclaim, “You’re full of knots!”

Sounds familiar, right? If so, you could possibly benefit from a trigger point massage.

The name might make it sound like you’re rubbing a rifle down your back, but fear not: The “trigger points” we’re talking about are those annoying knots — sore spots that cause you pain every day and seriously aggravate you and your muscles.

They can often lead to severe pain and reduced mobility in your back and neck. Screw that, right?

While trigger points are a topic of debate among scientists, who still aren’t 100 percent sure they’re a thing, some people swear they’ve experienced healing effects from having these painful spots massaged away.

So let’s check out how a trigger point massage might fire you back to muscular bliss!

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Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

You know when you see a massage on TV and the massage therapist does that really painful-looking thing where they stick their elbow into someone’s back to get the knots out? Well, that’s essentially what trigger point massage is.

Except it’s not as painful as TV makes it seem. Uncomfortable, for sure. But if you’re getting a trigger point massage from a pro, they’ll make sure you’re relaxed, not in pain, and receiving a beneficial service. And if you know what you’re doing with a DIY job, you can get similar results at home.

What you’re imagining is based in truth, though. You’ll strip down, and the therapist will apply pressure to the painful spots. (But you can often have the massage done through light clothing if being naked in front of others sounds like your personal hell.)

With a bit of luck, this can help untangle your muscle tissues and have them feeling chipper again.

There isn’t much research out there to support the existence of trigger points or the effectiveness of massages that target them. But if you try it and find that it feels good and relieves pain, who are we to judge?

When would you need a trigger point massage?

Computer nerds of the world, rise up! (And shake out your shoulders.)

Studies have shown that sitting in the same position for too long can really give your muscles and joints a rough time and can result in development of those nasty trigger points (if they’re even a thing — it’s best to think of them as knots).

And they don’t happen only in your neck and shoulders. You can develop myofascial pain syndrome (the posh term for muscle pain — yep, trigger points included) in multiple parts of your body, such as your triceps or glutes. Yup, it can be a literal pain in the ass.

And those knots can be painful enough that you’ll definitely know you’ve got them. You might notice that the pain hits you in two different ways:

  • Active trigger points. These cause pain even when you’re resting and often feel like the pain is spreading through your skin.
  • Latent trigger points. These are points that are painful only when compressed or palpated.

Do you need a pro, or can you do it yourself?

Not into the idea of stripping down to your skivvies and having a stranger’s hands (and elbows) on your body? Good news for ya: It’s possible to give yourself a trigger point massage at home. (We wouldn’t suggest you do it in public unless you’re A-OK with being the source of distracting oohs and aahs.)

The benefit of this is pretty obvious: Massages are expensive, and doing your own will save you a heck of a lot of money.

But consider how badly you need a massage: Is the pain so great that you feel you need a professional to help deal with it?

If that’s the case, you might want to schedule at least a few appointments with a licensed massage therapist to get you started or keep it to a manageable number of massages per month (one, the lowest ever number, is a good place to start if you’re paying for ’em). You can also treat yourself at home whenever you feel like it.

You might love the idea of giving yourself a trigger point massage at home and straightening out those knots. But you may not love the thought of buying costly equipment. Egads!

Wanna know something really cool? You can pick up everything you need super cheap. You might even have these items just lying around at home:

  • Tennis balls. Wrestle them away from the dog: Tennis balls make awesome massagers. Pop one on the floor and lie down so the affected area of your body is pressing against the ball. Tennis balls’ fluffiness and softness make them great for beginners.
  • Cane massagers. A cane massager is as simple as it gets and inexpensive too. Simply hook the cane over your shoulder and apply pressure with the nubbin. The design gives you a good amount of control, and you can do it standing up.
  • Foam rollers. A foam roller works similarly to a tennis ball but covers a larger area. Plus, you can choose from a wide range of densities and textures. Studies suggest that foam rolling can help with muscle soreness!

Can you buy a trigger point massager?

If you don’t have the mobility to use at-home massage tools like tennis balls and foam rollers and you’re not into seeing a pro, there’s another option you can try.

Massage guns are a thing, and they require very little effort in exchange for muscular bliss. You can buy ones with different speeds/intensities for different amounts of pain, with massage heads designed to increase blood flow to your muscles. They also give you a little more control over where you feel those healing effects.

Just keep in mind that they’re handheld and not terribly big. If you’re having problems with your back, you’ll likely need to enlist a willing volunteer to help, unless you have incredibly stretchy arms.

You’ve gotta start at the beginning — and with a trigger point massage, the beginning involves locating the trigger point itself:

  1. Run your hands over the area where you’re feeling pain: Is there one specific point that hurts? And if you apply some gentle pressure, does it feel weirdly good, like an itch that needed scratching? Congrats: You just rustled up your first possible trigger point.
  2. You can either use a tennis ball as your personal trigger point massage ball or simply use your fingers. Just apply pressure and rub. But remember not to press too hard, especially when you’re a beginner. Imagine a pain scale from 1 to 10 and try to keep it somewhere under 5.
  3. Keep going until things start to feel a bit looser and more comfortable, but don’t overdo it. You shouldn’t need to massage the spot more than twice a day.

The first thing we need to discuss is that research isn’t totally clear on whether trigger point massage is that effective. Some studies suggest it might help in the short to medium term. But long-term? Researchers just aren’t sure.

That’s gotta be number one on the list of possible cons, because getting a trigger point massage from a professional often ain’t cheap.

Even more than that, we just don’t know for certain if trigger points themselves are real. Studies have shown there’s a real lack of consistency in diagnosing cases of myofascial pain syndrome, which could mean there’s not a lot of evidence for trigger points.

Still, if you believe the massaging of trigger points helps with your pain, it’s an effective way of getting some fairly instant relief, especially if you’re doing it at home. No need to wait months for a therapy appointment — you can treat yourself with a simple tennis ball or foam roller.

And that’s the other benefit: If you know where your trigger points are and you’re willing to take matters into your own hands (literally), you can have a massage every day for a cost of absolutely zero. Zilch, nada, nothing. That’s most definitely a pro!

In short:

ProsCons ⛔️
You can do it yourself — for free.There’s very little reliable evidence that it actually works long-term.
When it works, it works instantly.Researchers don’t even know if trigger points are real.

Of course, it’s better not to develop those trigger points in the first place. (And it’ll also mean your dog doesn’t suffer from tennis ball deprivation.) So how do you go about keeping your neck and back in good shape?

  • Make your computer work for you. Whether you’re working from home or simply slaying orcs in your downtime, making sure your computer is set up correctly — and your body is positioned comfortably — is super important. Keep your head over your spine as much as you can, and prop your laptop up and inch or two, so you aren’t looking down at the screen. Take regular breaks too (lookin’ at you, gamers).
  • Check your phone usage. Know what’s terrible for your neck and back? Constantly craning your neck over your phone or tilting your head to one side to cradle it against your ear. Just don’t! Try to sit up straight if you’re texting. Using your phone while you’re lying flat in bed is also a no-no.
  • Keep good posture and be careful how you lift heavy stuff. There’s a reason ye olde folks used to balance books on their heads: Keeping your spine straight is so much better for your back, even though slouching might be temptingly comfortable. And always remember to lift with your knees and keep your back straight.
  • Exercise. It’s simple and effective, even with minimal equipment!

The science is still a bit up in the air when it comes to trigger point massages (and even trigger points themselves), but devotees swear they really work.

If you’re willing to experiment (you don’t even need to make an appointment with a professional therapist to give it a try), who knows? You might find that putting some light pressure on your muscles really works for you. And if it works for you, that’s all you need!

The great part is that you can try it out cheaply or for free at home. Grab life by the tennis balls and say sayonara to that pain.