What to Do About Stubborn, Painful Muscle Knots, According to Experts

What to Do About Stubborn, Painful Muscle Knots, According to Experts

Muscle knots can develop for a number of reasons—maybe work has you stressed out, poor desk posture has you hunched over, or that last gym session didn’t go well. Muscle knot causes aside, there’s no denying they can be painful. The tenseness is not fun, to say the least, and can interfere with your daily activities. Below, a physical therapist and massage therapist explain exactly what they are, what causes muscle knots, and how to treat and prevent them from forming in the first place.

What are muscle knots?

“Muscle knots are hard, sensitive ‘knots’ of muscles that tighten and contract even when the muscle is at rest,” explains Melissa Prestipino, D.P.T., a physical therapist and certified personal trainer practicing in Sparta, NJ. “These tense muscle fibers can cause pain in other parts of the body when touched. They’re also known as myofascial trigger points.”

According to Prestipino, there are two main types you can get:

  • Acute muscle knots happen after strenuous activities such as lifting weights or running, she says, and are usually small and localized to one spot.

  • Chronic muscle knots, on the other hand, are usually more persistent, larger, and occur in multiple spots within the same muscle group, she explains, making them more difficult to treat.

What causes muscle knots?

“Our muscles’ job is to hold our skeleton upright in alignment and to move our bones by contracting and relaxing,” says Kristin Coverly, L.M.T., licensed massage therapist and director of professional education for the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals. Ironically, both over- and under-use of those muscles can cause muscle knots to form.

“When we hunch our shoulders and head forward to look at our phones, or slouch when we sit for extensive periods, our muscles are put into positions that aren’t optimal and they often tighten in response,” Coverly explains. “Some people raise their shoulders when they’re under stress—maintaining this posture will cause muscles in the shoulder to tighten. Muscle tightness can also be caused by overuse and repetitive motion without regular breaks or stretching to counteract the movement.”

Prestipino adds that physical trauma, injury, emotional stress, and prolonged bed rest can all also lead to muscle knots.

Muscle knots symptoms

Other than the obvious—a hardened lump of muscle—symptoms of muscle knots include, per Prestipino:

  • Deep pain (especially when the affected area is touched)

  • General numbness or tingling

  • Nerve pain

  • Decreased range of motion

Coverly adds that tightness in the neck and shoulders can cause headaches.

How to treat muscle knots

Coverly and Prestipino recommend the following home remedies for muscle knots.

  • Stretching and gentle movement

  • Alternating heat and ice packs to increase blood flow and aid relaxation

  • Hydration

  • Massage therapy (in the form of a professional massage, foam rolling, or a massage gun)

To prevent muscle knots, always practice correct posture, get plenty of rest and adequate exercise, and schedule regular massages to maintain muscular health. “You should warm up and cool down when exercising and avoid overexertion,” adds Prestipino. “You should also avoid sitting for long periods of time.”

When to see a professional about muscle knots

“It’s always a smart decision to see a massage therapist when tight muscles are impeding your quality of life through pain or restricted movement,” says Coverly. “Not only can your practitioner physically work on your muscles during the session to bring you relief, but they can also identify the specific muscles that are tight and troubleshoot some of the potential causes with you.”

Prestipino recommends seeing a doctor for muscle knots if you begin experiencing dizziness, trouble breathing, extreme muscle weakness, or if you have a high fever and stiff neck, as these might be signs of more serious conditions.

You Might Also Like