“A trigger point is a hyperirritable spot, usually within a taut band of skeletal muscle or its fascia (Travell, Simons, 1983). It is point tender on site, often exhibits a predictable pain referral pattern and causes a shortening of the affected muscle” (Rattray & Ludwig, 2000). In other words, if you feel like you have pain radiating from a “knot”, it could be a trigger point.
The two most relevant types of trigger points are: latent and active. Latent trigger points are painful only when palpated. Active trigger points are painful all the time, and can mimic pain such as nerve pain, tendinitis, cardiac pain and headaches. If you have experienced tension headaches, odds are they’ve been caused by a combination of general muscle tightness and trigger point referrals.
Trigger points in the muscles surrounding your neck refer to all parts of the head: forehead, temples, the top of the head, behind your eyes, in your ears, and at the base of the head.
What causes these trigger points to form? The most obvious answer is injury or trauma to the head or upper body. Less obvious is how we hold our heads throughout the day: looking down at our phones or laptop; tilted to the side during phone calls or while watching tv; looking up at a computer screen or while driving; and all the weird positions we don’t know we’re in while we sleep. Basically, if we keep a muscle shortened in a position for long enough, it’s going to get tight. Stress can also play a part because many of us tend to hold our tension in our shoulders and subconsciously shrug them.
So, what can you do about it? First, take inventory. When a headache starts to come on, think about what you were doing and the circumstances leading up to the headache. Once you’ve done that, stretch the muscles you think may be shortened. It is recommended to hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds, but be cautious not to stretch to the point of pain, or you risk overstretching or causing your muscle to guard more. Using a bit of heat on the muscles during and after stretching for about 15 to 20 minutes is a good idea, too. And finally, try to make a routine of it. Pay attention to your body and your posture. Stretch as often as you can, or at the very least, when a headache starts to come on.
With all that said, it may still be necessary to get a treatment and have those trigger points specifically worked on, and be given specific stretches and remedial exercises that will be most beneficial for you.
If you have questions about trigger points or tension headaches, let’s chat at your next appointment!