Have you ever been able to put your finger on one spot in your neck or back and it hurts like crazy? What’s up with that? That, my friends, is what we call muscle knots.
Muscle knots are extremely common and often occur in the neck and back. But, what exactly is a “muscle knot”? Are my muscles really tied into a literal knot?
Well, no, not exactly.
Let’s dive deeper into what a muscle knot is, where they can pop up, and what to do about them.
First, what causes knots in your neck?
You might be thinking, “what is a knot in your neck?” Maybe you have a muscle knot at the base of your skull. Maybe you have a knot in your shoulder. It all has to do with our muscles and your mindset.
And our muscles are pretty incredible. They are literally built to withstand whatever we do with our bodies-- bending, twisting, dancing, playing sports, and so on. They’re made to be challenged.
Muscles are made up of tiny fibers that run in all directions and are layered on top of each other from our heads to our toes. Muscle knots occur when tight muscle fibers are unable to relax or release. These knots are typically painful to touch and may feel tight or tense. Muscle knots can range from the size of a pinhead to the size of a thumb. They may also appear inflamed or swollen.
These little spots we can put our fingers on are called “trigger points” because when pushed on, pain spreads throughout the entire muscle area.
These trigger points can actually send pain to areas outside of the muscle causing things like headaches, toothaches, or earaches. This is known as “referred pain”. As if your pain wasn’t frustrating and complicated enough!
What Causes Muscle Knots?
The usual culprits are dehydration, inactivity, injury, stress or repetitive movements (for example: slouching over a keyboard all day, hitting a few buckets of golf balls, or playing tennis).
It is thought that people with more stress in their lives might be clenching their muscles throughout the day leading to muscle knots. Have you ever heard of someone “holding stress” in their neck or shoulders? That is muscle tension as a result of clenching.
The truth is, scientists are not completely sure how these knots form but believe that they are a result of a combination of contributing factors listed above.
Most, if not all, people have experienced muscle knots and know how bothersome they can be.
Have you ever noticed that these muscle knots take so long to go away? There is a reason for that.
Because muscle knots are made up of a whole bunch of muscle fibers, these areas have decreased blood flow and therefore decreased oxygen and nutrients. This results in a buildup of toxins and wastes. So, it makes sense that these areas are painful and can take a long time to heal on their own.
Okay, so muscle knots are pretty common but does that mean they are normal or harmless?
Not so much.
This chronic stress on our muscles creates small tears in our muscles leading to scar tissue. If left untreated, the muscle tissue will lose its flexibility and cause changes in your posture which can be tough to reverse. Ever hear the saying “use it or lose it”? That applies here.
Don’t worry, it is not all bad news because muscle knots can be taken care of. We just need a better understanding of where and why they are occurring and the everyday preventative measures we can take.
Now, you may be wondering, where else besides my neck can these pesky muscle knots appear? Answer: everywhere.
Can knots in neck and shoulders be related?
So, your neck is connected to your shoulders, right?
This whole area of muscle can feel pretty tight after a stressful day or sitting at the computer for a long time. Maybe you have a few muscle knots in the back of the neck and in the shoulder area.
Are knots in the neck and shoulders related or is it a coincidence? Yep, they’re related. Say hello to the trapezius muscle.
The trapezius muscle gets its name from the word trapezoid, which is a four-sided diamond-like shape (didn’t think you’d be getting a geometry lesson today, huh?).
The muscle extends from the base of the skull down to the middle of the back and sideways to the shoulder. You have two trapezius muscles: right and left. It is one of the largest muscle groups in the body.
So what does the trapezius muscle do?
Its main function is to stabilize and move the scapula. For those of you who did not take anatomy in school, the scapula (also known as the shoulder blade) is the bone that connects your upper arm bone to your collarbone.
The trapezius muscles allow you to shrug your shoulders, move your head and neck toward the shoulder of each side, and support the weight of your arms. They basically control your upper body.
Movements that put stress on the trapezius muscles include holding a phone between your ear and shoulder, carrying a heavy purse or backpack, sleeping on your back or stomach with your head turned to the side, bending forward while working, or playing a musical instrument.
Think about all the activities you do every day whether it’s work or play. There is a good chance that you are using your trapezius muscles for most of them. No wonder we hold so much tension in our neck and shoulders resulting in muscle knots.
As you can imagine, strong trapezius muscles mean good upper-body strength.
But, you probably don’t want to go overboard and look like this…
Okay, so how can we take care of our trapezius muscles without becoming a bodybuilder?
Keep stress and tension away with these tips:
- Practice good posture: keep shoulders relaxed, sit up straight, and bring your head back
- When talking on the phone, go hands-free with a headset or Bluetooth device
- Lighten your purse or backpack and alternate shoulders on which you carry
- Ladies, make sure your bra straps aren’t too tight
- While using the computer, make sure your keyboard isn’t too high
- Use a chair with armrests when working
- Adapt to a sleeping position that doesn’t put stress on your neck (I know, easier said than done)
- Support your arms if standing for a long time: the weight of your arms puts stress on the shoulders
It seems to all come down to good posture in order to keep your trapezius muscles happy. Staying mindful of this should help you to avoid muscle knots in the neck and shoulders.
Home remedies for knots in your neck
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways you can self-treat or even prevent muscle knots.
Many times, exercise can be very effective in combating those annoying muscle knots. Try exercises like swimming, jumping jacks, yoga, or other movements that engage the muscles in the arms, shoulder, and neck.
This works not only to stretch your muscles, but also to get your blood flowing to flush out the toxins.
Looking for an excuse to go get a professional massage? Look no further. Massage is a very effective way to break up muscle knots. Applying pressure to the knot increases blood circulation bringing oxygen and nutrients to the problem area.
Massage also releases toxins so that they can be eliminated by the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms, leading to reduced inflammation and pain.
As mentioned, dehydration is a common cause of muscle knots. Be sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day. Also, be sure to drink more water before and after workouts to prevent new muscle knots from forming.
Keep in mind that coffee, tea, and alcohol are diuretics (cause you to lose fluid) and can make dehydration worse.
Heat and cold therapy
Break out the ice and heat packs. In general, cold compresses help to reduce swelling just after an injury has occurred. Alternatively, heat works to relax and loosen stiff muscles and also promotes increased blood flow. You could try one or the other or alternate between both. Go with whatever feels good to you.
Make stretching a frequent habit. Stretching helps open up the muscles and get your blood flowing. Stretching helps improve your flexibility and prevent knot formation. Also, always make sure to stretch before and after exercise. Your muscles will thank you.
This should go without saying but smoking is terrible for your health. In terms of muscle knots, smoking leads to inflammation and reduces circulation. It is also a risk factor for chronic pain.
Just don’t do it!
I know, easier said than done. Mental and emotional stress lead to muscle tension which then leads to muscle knots. It’s a vicious cycle. There are plenty of coping mechanisms you can learn to manage stress like deep breathing, meditation, and muscle relaxation techniques.
Also, don’t forget to engage in activities you enjoy and get enough sleep.
How about diet and supplements?
Is there any way to modify my diet to help fight muscle knots? Why yes, there is.
A well-balanced diet containing fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats (avocados, nuts, seeds) is never a bad idea.
Once again, hydration is super important here. Avoid alcohol, sugar, and sodium as these contribute to dehydration and overall bad health.
In regards to supplements, be aware of your magnesium intake. Magnesium helps to reduce muscle tightness and cramping.
You can find magnesium in foods like nuts, leafy greens, dark chocolate, and black beans. Over the counter magnesium supplements also exist.
Even better than worrying about taking a supplement is using topical magnesium to meet your magnesium needs while soothing achy muscles.
In fact, our 100% natural pain relief cream, You Plus Relief, contains magnesium as well as 29 other natural ingredients in order to attack pain from all angles. All without the toxic chemicals you don’t need such as parabens, petrochemicals, and formaldehyde. A topical formulation sounds much better than taking 30 different supplements, am I right?
What to do when muscle knots in neck won’t go away
You’ve done everything you can think of and that muscle knot in the back of your neck won’t go away. What now?
It might be time to bring out the (figurative) big guns. Here are some ways to take things a step further.
Acupuncture for muscle knots
For many people, the thought of undergoing acupuncture treatment is a little daunting.
What is acupuncture anyway?
Acupuncture is a type of complementary medicine that involves pricking the skin or deep tissues with needles to alleviate pain and treat a variety of physical and mental conditions. Acupuncture treatment originated in China but is becoming more popular in the western side of the world.
For muscle knots, acupuncture treatment forces the affected muscle into rapid contraction when the needle is inserted. This movement encourages new, oxygen-rich blood to flood the area which nourishes the muscle and flushes away built-up waste. Subsequently, tightness and pain associated with the muscle knot should improve.
If you’re not the type of person who is scared of needles, it could be a treatment that’s worth a try.
Physical therapists are experts in everything having to do with mobility and function and work with people with a variety of health conditions.
A physical therapist also knows all the tricks to releasing knotted muscles.
Your physical therapist can help reduce pain and tightness associated with muscle knots through stretches, massage, or a combination of techniques.
He or she may also be able to pinpoint the cause of the knots and give you exercises to do at home for prevention and treatment.
Booking a physical therapy session and paying careful attention to their instructions at home may be just what you need to stay free of knots
Seek medical attention
That muscle knot right at the base of your skull still won’t go away. You’ve tried everything. The pain continues to interfere with daily activities. Or, the knots keep coming back despite the interventions listed above.
Maybe it’s time to see someone?
A doctor or other provider may be able to suggest other methods of treatment for your muscle knots.
For example, some people receive injections of steroids or even Botox into the muscle knot itself to relieve inflammation and promote healing. This is probably only used in extreme cases and paired with complementary treatments like physical therapy.
Or, perhaps, the knot in your neck may not be a muscle knot after all.
It is possible that what you may think is a muscle knot is actually something else, like a swollen lymph node. We have many lymph nodes in our neck and throughout our bodies that act as “filters” for foreign particles and harmful substances. They can become enlarged in response to illness, stress, or infection. Swollen lymph nodes can appear as small lumps under the skin.
If you are concerned, make sure to get checked out to alleviate any worries.
What about other areas, like muscle knots in legs that won’t go away?
So we now know that muscle knots are most commonly found in the neck and shoulders. But can they occur in other places, like the legs? Sure.
Do you have a nagging ache in your hips? Or maybe it radiates to your hamstrings? You may notice the pain especially during or after an intense workout.
Maybe you’ve been sitting for too long (road trip, anyone?) or you play sports where you need to rotate your hips a lot.
If these sound familiar, you may be having a problem with your piriformis muscle. Say what now?
The piriformis muscle is located deep in the buttock area (behind the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the body) and functions to rotate the hips, legs, and feet.
The muscles in the buttock area are actually pretty complex and difficult to distinguish but most pain “back there” is likely to involve the piriformis muscle.
Interesting side note: women are six times more likely to have problems with muscle knots in the piriformis muscle than men.
If this sounds like it is a problem area for you, you may want to try pressing on the “trigger point” in your piriformis muscle to achieve at least a little bit of pain relief.
First, locate your sacrum (which is at the base of your spine, below your hip bones) and press in on the fleshy part of your buttocks. Instant (although temporary) relief!
How about muscle knots in your calves?
Pain from these knots just seems to come at the most inconvenient times.
Treat muscle knots in your calves as you would muscle knots in your neck and shoulders. Try heat, massage, stretching, and hydration.
You could also try stepping up your intake of potassium-rich foods as low potassium can contribute to leg cramps.
Potassium-rich foods include bananas, oranges, potatoes, peanut butter, avocados, and spinach. Most people don’t need potassium supplements as long as they are eating a well-balanced diet. Too much potassium can be really bad for your heart.
Another treatment for muscle knots in legs is self-myofascial relief with a foam roller. Think of it as a self-massage.
Foam rolling involves using a short log made of foam which allows you to place direct pressure on muscle knots. The roller is essentially ironing out and massaging your muscles.
You can also try foam rolling for muscles in your arms and back.
Foam rolling, a fairly simple technique, can bring increased flexibility, improved range of motion, better muscle recovery, and pain relief in a matter of minutes. Try it when cooling down after an intense workout to loosen tight muscles.
To learn the basics of foam rolling, check out the video below.
Looking for a good foam roller? This one, recommended by The Wirecutter and sold on Amazon, should work great. Your local gym also likely has some for you to try out.
Happy, healthy muscles
As you can see, there is a lot we can do to take care of our muscles and stay pain and knot free.
We all need to try to focus a little more on good posture and keeping everything in line. Because let’s face it, we spend a lot of time hunched over our cell phones and keyboards!
Couple that along with stress management, stretches, exercise, good nutrition and hydration, and an occasional massage, your muscles will thank you!
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