Muscle knots can be a real pain in the neck—or back or thigh or butt. The ability to keep muscles functioning properly is often taken for granted. If you're reading this, you are probably nodding your head in agreement right now.
Knots, or muscle adhesions as they are commonly referred to, are painful areas of tense muscle tissues. They are typically the result of overworked and improperly recovered muscles, but they can also be symptoms of stress or dehydration.
Muscles are made up of tiny fibers running parallel to one another, which are vital for the ability to contract and perform. Exercise and other forms of stress to the muscles cause tiny "micro-tears" in these fibers. Tearing may sound like a bad thing, but micro-tears are the reason why muscles grow bigger and stronger. However, too many micro-tears in one area may lead to adhesions and knots. Aside from causing pain and discomfort, muscle adhesions may increase the risk of injury. They should not go untreated.
When muscle adhesions are present, circulation is limited and accumulations of metabolic waste like lactic acid may occur. If it helps, you can think about muscle knots like car accidents. Traffic flows smoothly with vehicles driving parallel to one another—but one accident can dramatically slow the flow of traffic. In addition to the lack of circulation, adhesions limit range of motion and ability of a muscle to contract or relax. This may lead to muscle spasms, nerve pain or injury from the inability to control the movements of joints.
Treating Muscle Knots
If you are unsure of what is causing your pain, seek professional care before applying any of the following methods yourself, especially when dealing with muscle knots around your neck and spine. Treatment by a licensed massage therapist or myofascial release specialist would be the ideal choice, but below are a few solutions for self-treatment.
This is by far the most popular method for treating muscle adhesions. You will likely find a foam roller in any gym these days. Avoid mindlessly rolling around on the floor and really focus on "trigger point" or targeted knots. When you find a tender spot, put the muscle through its full range of motion and roll both vertically and horizontally where applicable.
One downside of foam rollers is their inability to target knots in smaller muscle groups or in spots that a roller can't reach, like around the neck or groin. That's where the next method comes into play.
Tennis and Lacrosse Balls
For those hard-to-reach areas, using a smaller object like a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball is your best bet. These may also provide a harder exterior for larger muscle groups that need deeper penetration, like the quadriceps or hamstrings. Use the same strategy as with the foam roller. Take your time on tender areas and focus on breaking up the adhesions one at a time. This will be a bit more painful than the foam roller, but if you experience extreme discomfort, revert back to the foam roller.
Staying hydrated improves circulation and allows waste products to be transported out of muscle cells. Hydration can also reduce the risk of injury by lubricating the joints, relieving some of the strain on muscles and connective tissues.
Don't forget good ol' static stretching after physical activity. Stretching promotes blood flow to muscle tissues and improves the rate of recovery, limiting future muscle knots.
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I'm not talking about teeth, although you should definitely be flossing those too. The flossing I'm talking about is done with a tight elastic band. A popular brand is Voodoo Floss, but you use an ACE bandage. Flossing requires you to wrap the knotted area tightly with the elastic band. You will notice myofascial release, like with the manual therapies above, and you may also reduce inflammation through the compression and improve blood flow to your tissues. The compression may also improve movement quality, allowing you to get your muscle working the way it should be again. Do not floss an area for too long, depending on how tight you have it wrapped.