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What Even Is A Muscle Knot?

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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Ah, there it is: that awful twinge of pain in your shoulder or neck that doesn't seem to go away, no matter what you do. Almost everyone has felt this at some point. Your friends tell you stress will only make it worse — but that's not exactly something you can control when a muscle knot is getting out of control. What even is a muscle knot, anyway?
These little, irritating bubbles are caused by chronic myofascial pain, which is felt in particularly sensitive "trigger points" in the body. When this kind of pain doesn't go away, the muscle can swell and harden into a bump (or "knot"). Although there's no scientific consensus on why these knots form, we know they tend to show up after the muscle is injured or strained due to repetitive motions. And, they often occur in the shoulders, back, or neck.
One current knot-science thought is that the fibers that make up your muscle tissue contract in response to some extra calcium in the area. This inflammation causes targeted swelling, soreness, weakness, and (of course) pain when you touch the affected trigger zones. So, while the fibers aren't tied up in an actual knot, it can certainly feel like it. Although they can be hard to accurately diagnose, these knots can be seen in ultrasound images.
So, one goal for a massage therapist is to stretch out and relax those contracted muscle fibers as well as induce an anti-inflammatory response. But, if your knot really just isn't going away, your doctor might recommend other options. For instance, trigger point pain-relieving injections are delivered straight to the painful spot — sometimes these contain corticosteroids or even Botox. However, these can come with side effects and are often combined with physical therapy. And, of course, there's always acupuncture.
While there's no clear causal relationship between stress and muscle knots, they commonly occur in people who have other chronic issues — such as depression, problems sleeping, and fatigue — that are often linked to anxiety. Some research has suggested that people who experience more stress in their lives might be clenching their muscles a lot during the day, causing these tight spots to form. Vitamin deficiencies and prolonged bad posture can also predispose us to developing trigger-point trauma.
So, the next time you get that nagging feeling in your shoulders after long hours at the computer, know that you're "knot" imagining it — and get a massage.
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