Muscle knots and tension can be a pain, literally. And you may have heard that acupuncture, a traditional Chinese healing technique, can help – but is it true? Let’s break it down.
Does Acupuncture Work for Muscle Knots?
The Traditional Chinese Medicine practice of acupuncture, when performed by a trained and experienced practitioner, can work wonders for muscle knots, tension, and painful points throughout the body.
Considering acupuncture as a treatment option certainly makes sense, especially when DIY strategies like stretching or taking pain medicine have proven unhelpful (or just unappealing).
But as with any new treatment you try, there’s background information that'll help you understand exactly how acupuncture works, and why it's a great way to relieve uncomfortable knots and get your body pain-free again.
What Causes Muscle Knots and Tension?
The feeling of a muscle knot might be more familiar to athletes, but it happens to people of all activity levels and all ages. A muscle knot can be described as a tight, sensitive area of muscle or place of stiffness that feels taut and painful to the touch.
Physical therapists often notice tight muscles and painful areas in patients seeking support with strength and range of motion. Muscle knots can be traced back to a multitude of causes, which is part of why they are so common.
Hunching and Crunching
Poor posture, for example, can lead to muscle knots, both while standing and sitting. For those who perform office work during the day, hunching over a computer or tilting your neck to hold phone conversations can easily lead to the tightening of neck, back, and shoulder muscles, particularly in a non-ergonomic chair.
Stress and anxiety often have the same effect; people experiencing emotional tension are thought to involuntarily tense up their muscles, too, sometimes leading to unpleasant knots.
Routines and Positions
Repetitive or strenuous exercise, or overwork, is another common culprit behind muscle knots. If a runner switches to hilly routes, for example, or a yogi adds more difficult arm balances to their practice, they may notice muscle knots developing in the legs or upper body, respectively.
Perhaps counterintuitively, simply sitting in a certain position for too long can also cause muscle tightness – think about sitting cross-legged in a cramped car during a road trip, or trying to squeeze your knees behind an airplane seat on a cross-country flight. Anything that places an unusual demand on a muscle or group of muscles can, unfortunately, cause knots to crop up.
What Are Trigger Points?
Trigger points are muscle knots, just in more technical terms. A myofascial trigger point is a spot or knob on the body that is tight and sensitive to the touch, often caused by injury, overuse, or stress-related tension.
The term myofascial refers to muscle and its connective tissue, fascia, both of which are involved in the formation of these trigger points. Myofascial pain is injury or irritation of the muscle and fascia.
Trigger points can also, frustratingly, result in the spread of pain to nearby or even distant areas of the body in a phenomenon known as referred pain. It’s not random – referred pain follows recognized, predictable patterns.
For example, a trigger point on the back of the shoulder can result in aches all the way down the arm to the hand. A trigger point in the gluteal area (i.e. your seat) can cause pain to spread across the low back.
Sometimes, seemingly mysterious musculoskeletal discomfort, like low back pain or lack of mobility in the hip area, can actually be traced by your therapist back to a trigger point in a different body part.
Types of Trigger Points
Some research suggests that there are two different types of trigger points: active and latent, also called passive. Both kinds are associated with focal pain and tenderness at the site of the knot, but it’s the active trigger points that also cause referred pain. Trigger point therapy is thought to offer relief from both active and latent trigger points.
How Does Acupuncture Release Trigger Points?
Acupuncture releases trigger points using very thin needles inserted into the skin. An acupuncture practitioner locates the center of the knotted muscle fibers and gently places stainless steel needles into the affected area, which cause the muscle to involuntarily contract in what's known as a twitch response.
That contraction then begins a chain of events in which the body’s own healing mechanisms react, opening blood vessels to increase blood flow and releasing endorphins to help the muscle relax (and the mind unwind, too). Acupuncture needles are specially designed for comfort and effectiveness, and licensed practitioners must always use safe and sterile needles.
Acupuncture for Referred Pain
If you’re dealing with active trigger points, releasing them with acupuncture may also improve your referred pain in other parts of the body.
When you consult with your acupuncturist, be sure to mention any musculoskeletal symptoms you’ve noticed, even if they seem unrelated. A skilled therapist is often able to trace referred pain to a trigger point that you may not even have been aware of.
Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling
In addition to acupuncture, you may have heard of another process, called dry needling, sometimes used for the release of trigger points. Dry needling, which is a newer, Western-developed practice (as opposed to acupuncture’s ancient roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine) touts some of the same concepts, but in truth, has significant differences.
Cupping, another technique rooted in TCM like acupuncture, also may help increase blood flow and relieve muscle tension, in targeted areas and all over the body. Cupping is often used by athletes to help with recovery and healing the routine wear and tear that comes with an active lifestyle.
Some clients ultimately seek physical therapy to help with pain relief for stubborn muscle knots.
The Benefits of Acupuncture for Muscle Knots and Tension
Acupuncture has noticeable benefits for muscle knots and tension, in addition to many other clinically recognized benefits both mental and physical. After acupuncture, you can expect to notice a feeling of release in previously tight and tender areas of muscle, both immediately and over time.
You may also experience a reduction in discomfort across other body parts as referred pain caused by the trigger points abates as well. Especially with regular acupuncture, like weekly or monthly sessions, you may find that even previously stubborn muscle knots begin to heal. As your stiffness and pain dissipate, don’t be surprised if emotional stress and tension lessen along with them.
Research on acupuncture has also suggested other benefits including relief from medical conditions like headaches, menstrual cramps, arthritis, allergy symptoms, depression, and more. Studies point to nervous system stimulation as a possible mechanism of these widespread improvements.
Acupuncture Treatment for Muscle Knots: What to Expect
Perhaps you’ve never experienced an acupuncture treatment, or maybe you have, but not with the goal of alleviating muscle knots. Regardless, here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect.
You should arrive at your acupuncture appointment in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing, ideally a few minutes early so there’s time to check in. Your first session may take a little longer than subsequent ones.
Your Acupuncture Session
First, you’ll talk to your practitioner about where you’re experiencing discomfort, for how long, and to what extent. It can help your acupuncturist to know what led to your muscle knots, like a particular exercise, or whether they seem linked to any other symptoms you’re having.
You’ll point out the tender areas, and your practitioner may use their hands to understand your physiology and begin identifying strategic points and the best placement for needles. Now's a great time to ask any questions about your treatment plan.
Then, you’ll lie down on a flat acupuncture table, similar to a massage table, facing either up or down according to your practitioner’s guidance. (Some muscle knots will be easier to reach one way or another.) Your healer will place ultra-thin needles into specific points on the skin and muscle and leave them there for up to about 30 minutes while you relax.
You may feel a small pinch as they enter, but many people report feeling nothing at all, or just a slight tingling. At the end of your appointment, your practitioner will return to safely and efficiently remove all the needles and consult with you about next steps.
How Much Does Acupuncture Cost?
You may also be wondering what to expect when it comes to acupuncture’s time commitment and financial cost. Most studios offer appointments in the 45-minute to 1-hour range, though your first appointment may be longer to include a holistic assessment.
Though a single acupuncture treatment is better than nothing, you’ll see the best results when you return for acupuncture weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Across the country, sessions average about $115 each, but can be up to about $200 in areas with a higher cost of living like New York and San Francisco.
At WTHN’s New York studios, members pay as little as $85 per visit. A membership helps make it easier and more likely that you’ll return for sustained treatment and long-lasting recovery, which is especially important for chronic pain.
How to Relieve Muscle Knots at Home
When a trip to the acupuncturist isn’t possible, there are fortunately ways to help relieve muscle knots at home (or on the go).
Some of the most effective strategies overlap with acupuncture in one way or another, either by mimicking the physical stimulation or by tapping into other principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. An alternative treatment may be just what you need until you can make it into the studio.
Try an Acupressure Mat
A portable, at-home acupressure mat is a great way to help relieve all kinds of pain, including discomfort from muscle knots. Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but without the needles. When you lie down on an acupressure mat, tiny plastic points gently poke the skin to stimulate a healing response.
Using an acupressure mat can be especially helpful for individuals with muscle knots along the neck, shoulders, and back. It can improve blood circulation and a feeling of relaxation. You can roll up an acupressure mat and tote it along it to work, to the gym, or on vacation.
Relieve Muscle Pain with Chinese Herbs
Acupuncture and herbal remedies are two key pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chinese herbs work from the inside out to help bring the body into balance. Some herbs, such as WTHN’s blend Head To Toe Relief, help to reduce soreness related to muscular overuse or trigger points.
These types of supplements can be seen as a natural, non-pharmaceutical alternative to over the counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which sometimes come with undesirable and even dangerous side effects. Many acupuncture practitioners recommend that their clients supplement hands-on sessions with herbs to maintain healing processes on a daily basis.
Acupuncture, along with and other techniques and concepts rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine, are a safe and effective way to remedy muscle knots and the all-over issues they cause. Explore personalized acupuncture and cupping therapy memberships at WTHN in NYC today.