How to Treat and Prevent Muscle Knots

Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT on October 19, 2017Written by Emily Cronkleton on October 19, 2017

What are muscle knots?

Muscles knots are hard, sensitive areas of muscles that tighten and contract even when the muscle is at rest. These tense muscle fibers can cause pain in other parts of the body when touched. They’re also known as trigger points.

Muscle knots can be caused by:

  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • overusing or injuring your muscles
  • poor posture

Dehydration, unhealthy eating habits, and stress and anxiety may also contribute to muscle knots.

Muscle knots can occur anywhere in the body, but they’re usually found in your back, shoulders, and neck. They often show up in your gluteal muscles, too.

Muscles knots can cause aching sensations and pain in your muscles and joints. When you touch a muscle knot, it may feel swollen, tense, or bumpy. It could also feel tight and contracted, even when you’re trying to relax, and they’re often sensitive to the touch. The affected area may even become inflamed or swollen.

Muscle knots can cause symptoms in areas outside of the muscles, including:

  • headaches
  • toothaches
  • earaches

You may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression, and have difficulty sleeping.

Treatment

Treating muscle knots can take time. To get rid of the knots, you’ll need to break up the knotted tissue and calm inflamed nerves. Following are some things you can do to help break up the knots and find relief.

Rest

Allow your body to rest if you have muscle knots. Take a break from any activities that are causing the knots, or that increase your pain or discomfort. Dedicate as much time as possible to relaxation. This may include sleeping longer than usual or lying in a comfortable position using pillows to support your body.

Stretch

Gentle stretching that elongates your muscles can help you to release tension in your body. Be gentle with yourself while stretching. Don’t force yourself into any positions or do anything that causes pain.

For best results, hold stretches for at least 30 seconds, and release the stretch slowly to reduce your risk for injury

Exercise

Aerobic exercise may help to relieve muscle knots. If the knots are in your shoulders or neck, do jumping jacks, swimming, and any other arm movements that work the muscles in your shoulders and neck. This stretches the muscles and increases their blood supply. Increased blood supply helps filters out toxins.

Hot and cold therapy

Using a combination of heat and cold can help to relieve pain and inflammation due to muscle knots.

Cold helps to constrict the blood vessel, which reduces swelling. To apply cold, use a cold compress for 10 minutes, and then remove it for at least 15 minutes. You can repeat this until you begin to find relief.

Heat relaxes and loosens stiff muscles, and relieves pain. Heat may increase blood flow, which promotes healing. To apply heat, use a heating pad or take a warm bath.

Alternate between cold and heat treatment, or use the one that works best for you. Hot and cold therapy should be used in conjunction with other therapies.

Use a muscle rub

Muscle rubs help to soften and relax muscle knots. You can massage a muscle rub onto the affected area twice a day for cooling relief. You may need someone to help you apply to it difficult-to-reach areas.

Find a formula that contains menthol, capsaicin, or camphor. Before using a rub for the first time, do a patch test. To do a patch test, apply a small amount of the ointment onto the inside of your forearm. Wait 24 hours to make sure there’s no reaction. If there’s no reaction, you should be fine applying it to other parts of your body.

Trigger point pressure release

This therapy works by applying pressure to your trigger points. A skilled practitioner will put pressure on the muscle knot until it softens and releases. After a treatment session, you’ll have a set of movements to complete at home. This will help to retrain your muscles.

Physical therapy

In more serious cases, physical therapy may be recommended. A physical therapist can help you identify the underlying causes of your muscle knots. They will treat your pain using treatments appropriate to your case. You will be taught techniques that will reduce pain and prevent it from recurring.

Massage therapy

You can use massage to treat muscle knots. Massage therapy increases circulation and improves blood flow. That can improve muscle function and help loosen up your muscles. This helps to relieve pain and stiffness.

Keep in mind that one session isn’t usually enough to heal you completely. You’ll likely need to have several frequent sessions. Once you see improvements you can space out your sessions.

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.

Self-massage

In some cases, you can massage the sore muscles yourself. Locate the muscle knot and use your fingers to gently massage it.

While massaging, focus on trying to loosen up the tight muscle fibers and relieve tension. Press firmly into the affected area and make small circles with your fingers. You can also place a tennis ball between your back and the floor or a wall, and roll back and forth on the ball to apply more pressure to the knot. Experiment by slowly and gently moving the ball to apply pressure to points of tension. You can use a foam roller in much the same way.

Swedish massage

This gentle massage technique will be suitable for you if have a lot of tension or are sensitive to touch. Swedish massage uses long strokes, kneading, and deep circular movements. Vibration and tapping are also used to aid in relaxation.

Deep tissue massage

This type of massage uses forceful strokes to release chronic muscle tension. It targets the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It’s often used to treat muscle damage from injuries.

Sports massage therapy

This massage technique is geared especially toward athletes. It can be used to prevent or treat injuries.

When to seek help

Untreated muscle knots can cause chronic pain and lead to other health issues. See your health care provider if you’ve taken measures to relieve your muscle pain, but it persists. You should also call your doctor if pain becomes severe and is interfering with your daily life and well-being.

It’s possible that what seems like a muscle knot could be something else, such as a swollen lymph node. Usually there will be other symptoms that accompany a swollen lymph node, such as a cold, cough, or infection.

Check with a doctor, physical therapist, or osteopath if you want to make sure it’s a muscle knot and not something else. They can determine possible causes for the pain.

Prevention

There are several ways to prevent muscle knots from forming.

  • Always practice good posture in your daily life. Focus on sitting relaxed, with your shoulders back and down, and avoid slouching while sitting.
  • Get plenty of rest and adequate exercise.
  • Warm up and cool down when exercising, and don’t overexert yourself. Lifting too heavy or running too fast can cause injuries that may also lead to muscle knots.
  • Don’t sit for long periods of time. Take a break, and get up and move at least once every hour of extended sitting.
  • Do simple stretches throughout the day to keep your muscles from getting tight. You can even do exercises while sitting at a desk or watching television. Bring an awareness of the alignment of your body while going about physical activities.
  • Maintain a healthy diet that includes calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and drink plenty of water. Replace processed foods with fresh, whole foods.
  • Consider getting regular massages to help you to relax, gain flexibility, and keep your muscles healthy.

Takeaway

Muscle knots aren’t always avoidable, but you can take steps to reduce your risk. Make sure you’re physically active on a daily basis. Take time to focus on flexibility and relaxation. Discover which lifestyle changes and treatment plans work best for you. If you have a muscle knot that’s getting worse, not improving with treatment, or affecting your mobility, talk to your doctor.

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