We tend to use the expression “a pain in the neck” to refer to difficult and unpleasant situations; in some cases, we may even use this expression to describe a person who is rather difficult to deal with. This allusion to an anatomical condition makes sense insofar as the deeply uncomfortable sensation of overly tense muscles in our necks, also known as knots or trigger points. Muscle knots can occur in various parts of our bodies, but they can be particularly uncomfortable when they emerge in areas of the back, shoulder, or necks.
What Exactly is a Muscle Knot?
Trigger points feel like a bundle of nerves have become tangled up into knots; they can often develop in the back of your neck below the skull, behind the clavicle, or somewhere between the shoulder blades. This is a musculoskeletal condition affecting the upper trapezius, a rather large muscle that becomes active during the extension of the head and neck. When we tilt our heads back, the upper trapezius springs into action. In reality, there is no tangling or knotting happening when a trigger point develops; what actually occurs is a painful tightening and swelling of muscle fibers.
Understanding Muscle Knots
As previously mentioned, muscle knots are overly taut fibers that result in spasms and tender spots. The pain that emanates from these trigger points can follow the network of muscle fibers and nerves until they are felt elsewhere, which means that a muscle knot could create a ripple effect that may include headaches. These trigger points are quite common; according to longitudinal research conducted in 2013, muscle knots are bound to be felt by all people at least once in their lives.
Knotted muscles will feel hard to the touch; they can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as a pebble, but they are invariably uncomfortable and tender to the touch. When you press on muscle knots, you may feel pain radiating up towards your head and down towards your scapular region and shoulders. These rigid spots may develop on just one side of the neck, but they can also be bilateral. They may come and go, and in some cases they may limit range of motion, thus making your neck feel stiff.
What Causes Muscle Fibers to Feel Like Knots
With muscle knots, it all comes down to tension, and it can be related to physical or emotional stress. The worst kind of muscle knots are the kind that feels as if they are actively pulsating; this is because of the continuous contraction caused by spasms; when these happen, the tenderness to the touch will not be felt until the contractions stop. Following are the most common causes of tensions resulting in muscle knots:
- Repetitive motion such as turning your neck in the same direction
- Very long periods of inactivity
- Prolonged inadequate posture
In essence, a reduction in the blood flow to muscle fibers causes muscle fibers to become deprived of oxygen, which in turn results in a loss of nutrients; what is left behind is a mess of toxins while the muscle fibers are still fulfilling their functionality. Depending on how quickly this process can be reversed, and also depending on the fitness of the muscle fibers themselves, this painful condition may last for a while.
How Stress Factors Exacerbate Muscle Knots
A few decades ago, trigger points in the neck were described as being a 20th-century malady, and this assertion was based on the rise of desk jobs and cubicle farms. Let’s think about a call center where agents take calls from irate callers; we are talking about employees who slouch over a keyboard and deal with the stress of handling difficult customers, thus creating both physical and emotional tension during shifts that may extend beyond eight hours when agents are working overtime.
Let’s say a customer service agent working for the local cable company has had a long and stressful day dealing with subscribers who have been cut off from internet access for hours; if her workstation lacks ergonomics, she will very likely develop muscle knots not just because of inadequate posture but also because her job is literally a pain in the neck. If this agent decides to unwind by heading over to the golf driving range and hitting a couple of buckets of balls, she may end up making matters worse because of the repetitive neck movements involved in this activity.
Preventing Muscle Knots
Before we get into how to fix a knot in your neck, let’s go over what you can do to prevent this from happening:
* Stay hydrated, which not only means drinking plenty of water but also keeping your caffeine, liquor, and tobacco intake as low as possible.
* Avoid situations in which you will be exposed to poor posture. If you work a desk job, insist on ergonomics for your workstation, and try to stretch your shoulders and neck muscles whenever possible. Slouching may feel more comfortable than sitting straight, but you could end up paying the price with muscle knots.
* Take up yoga or physical exercise. Any activity that involves stretching and a gentle transition from one movement to the next will greatly reduce neck pain. With yoga asanas such as Surya Namaskar, also known as sun salutations, you will not only improve flexibility but also posture.
Self-Treatment for Muscle Knots
You will want to start with massage therapy. If you are not able to schedule a therapeutic session, look into getting a foam roller that you can use right over the trigger point; as long as you start with gentle pressure, you will not radiate pain. As for cold therapy, you can apply ice packs as soon as the muscle knots are felt, but you will want to apply warm compresses to relax the fibers and improve circulation if the trigger point has been bothering you for more than a few days.
In the aforementioned sun salutation yoga asana, the cobra pose requires a neck rotation stretch, which happens to be excellent for alleviating muscular pain in the neck. You don’t have to go through this entire pose; instead, sit up with your shoulders straight and practice shrugging and rolling them around before transitioning to cervical rotations. Slowly turn your head to the left as far as it will go, hold it for a couple of seconds and then push your chin with your right hand for a full stretch. Switch to the other side and repeat until your neck no longer feels stiff.
Should you fail to get relief with hot and cold therapy, massage, or neck stretching, you may want to schedule a chiropractic consultation. In some cases, what feels like muscle knots may actually be a different issue related to your spine. You can also try taking anti-inflammatory medication sold over the counter, but this will only bring temporary relief; it is always better to treat yourself with stretching, massage, ice packs, and warm compresses.