Unravelling the mystery of the muscle knot

Geschreven door Annemarie Bijloos


A different perspective on those tense triggerpoints

“Don’t ask why the addiction, ask why the pain. To understand people’s pain, you have to understand their lives. In other words, addiction is a normal response to trauma.”


Reading time: 5 minuten

by: Annemarie Bijloos

All too familiar

We all know them. Those hard spots or parts of a muscle that are painful, or cause pain somewhere else in your body. There is quite some scientific controversy about muscle knots. What they are, what causes them, how they can be treated. Even about whether or not they are real.

The most common theory is that a muscle knot is a local contraction in the muscle fibers. This leads to a blockage in blood flow, which leads to an accumulation of waste material in the area, which in turn triggers a pain signal to the brain (hence their other name: trigger points).

Another well-known theory is that muscle knots are caused by dehydration in the fascia, the thin sheet of connective tissue that surrounds and protects muscle fibers, and enables them to move. This all sounds plausible, right?

In 1992, four of the most well-known trigger point scientists at that time were asked to participate in a blind experiment, in which they had to localize muscle knots in participants with muscle pain. Interestingly, or shockingly, they could not find those knots, or agree on where they were. 30 years and many more research endeavors later, still no conclusive evidence has been found that proves the existence of muscle knots.

If it works…

Leaving the real/not real discussion to the scientists, I’d like to pose a provocative question: what’s wrong with a good placebo effect? Because, as Quest writer Sebastiaan van de Water writes: “you seem to can get rid of those muscle knots, whether they exist or not”.

Many clients that visit our massage practice not only physically experience tight spots in their muscles. They also share the relief they feel after a professional, mindful massage. The pragmatist in me would say, ‘if it works, it’s most likely true.’

One of our most seasoned therapists says that the more present she is during a massage, the quicker the knots release. ‘Tender loving care’ can go a long way. At Movement Matters will keep doing just that until the scientists have figured out the specifics.

It starts with ‘why’

Another good question to ask, comes from trauma expert Gabor Maté. In trying to understand trauma, we often get bogged down in analyzing the coping mechanisms people develop in order to deal with trauma, like an addiction. But Maté argues: “Don’t ask why the addiction, ask why the pain. To understand people’s pain, you have to understand their lives. In other words, addiction is a normal response to trauma.” You could substitute the word ‘addiction’ here for ‘muscle knot’.

A muscle knot then, is a normal response to, or coping mechanism for dealing with, a traumatic, or at least stressful situation. For example, you could develop tight muscles in reaction to an injury, a depression, or simply from sitting behind your desk for 8 hours a day. Your body adapts to protect you from pain (which, ironically, can lead to pain), or to execute an activity (like desk work) as best it can. In this light, one might agree with massage therapist Ian Harvey (known on YouTube as Massage Sloth) that your body has ‘earned’ those knots!

Deep dive

A muscle knot, because it’s painful, asks for your attention. The solution, or long-term relief from the pain, however, most likely lies somewhere else. Instead of narrowing down on the knot itself, we could (or should) widen our focus and ask: ‘why the pain?’ This could lead us to identify the immediate cause of the pain: sitting still, sleeping in one position, repeatedly doing the same action, overexertion, being sick, lack of water or nutrients. We can then make some changes to our lifestyle, diversify our movement patterns, and sooth or loosen up the involved muscles through (self-)massage.

But I believe the question of ‘why the pain?’ can take us to a level deeper. What’s the bigger context of our life? With this holistic perspective, we can explore what might drive us into coping by physically tensing up.

That spot between your shoulder blades might be a normal physical reaction to being hunched over for extended periods of time, which might be common if you have an office job (or if you’re a massage therapist…). But still, you could ask yourself: why do I put my body in positions that cause me pain? What stops me from doing something different? I’m not saying you should quit your job or radically change your life – even though there are no guarantees that you won’t if you start asking yourself that so seemingly innocent question of ‘why?’

Why are you holding on? Why do you think that tension is necessary? Would it be safe for you to release some of that tension? And who might help you navigate that journey?

Annemarie Bijloos is a philosopher, masseuse and yoga teacher.

More of her stories you can read here.


Sebastiaan van de Water in Quest:


Interview with Gabor Maté in The Guardian:


 Ian Harvey (Massage Sloth) on muscle knots:


Misschien vind je dit leuk om te lezen…

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