Our muscle tissue is quite a lot more interesting than you may think. It behaves in different ways, depending on its treatment and circumstances. Muscle tissue also changes as it ages, becoming more susceptible to dysfunction. But the changes aren’t always irreparable – with a little bit of knowledge, and some great massage technique, we can stay on top of them. If you’re into muscles, or in to massage and feeling better (and who isn’t?) trigger points, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and muscle guarding are well worth knowing about.
A familiar term amongst many, technically speaking, trigger points are a bunch of extremely contracted muscle ‘sarcomeres’. Sarcomeres are like tiny little micro-muscles, bundles of protein fibres that are the basic component of striated muscle tissue. Sometimes you get an area where these sarcomeres spasm or tighten up causing what we commonly refer to as a trigger point.
So are all tight muscles trigger points? No. Sometimes the entire muscle will go into spasm, in other words, all the fibres contract. With a trigger point, there is a localised tender area – and in some cases, the area can be very sensitive and painful for a massage therapist to work on.
Trigger points are caused by tissue irritation, too much activity, overstretching or even chills. Having an experienced massage therapist perform trigger point therapy effectively can give you profoundly positive results, restoring ease of muscle movement and relaxing the surrounding muscles.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
As the name suggests, delayed onset muscle soreness does not appear straight away. It is not simply sore muscles after exercise. Delayed onset muscle soreness presents itself as intense muscle soreness and weakness, causing the muscles to feel like they can’t coordinate properly. It’s that feeling you get a couple of days after a heavy workout where you find your muscles unable to function: walking down the stairs or performing a particular task may make your muscles suddenly give way and become like jelly. (Depending on your mood, DOMS can be either amusing or downright exasperating!)
DOMS may start to occur a few hours after exercise but is usually at its worst two days after an exercise activity. The types of exercise activity that bring on DOMS are unusual or intense activities, but in particular, it occurs after intensive eccentric contraction. This means when the muscle is moving (under load), from a contracted position to a more extended one.
The clearest example of eccentric contraction is with reverse bicep curls (where the angle at the elbow increases, opening your weighted arm away from your body), running down stairs or reverse squats (squat to standing position).
Scientist can’t get to the bottom of what actually causes delayed onset muscle soreness, nor do people know how to treat it. Anti-inflammatories may ease the pain, but will not help the muscle weakness, nor the recovery time. You just have to wait it out.
Another extremely interesting phenomenon, ‘muscle guarding’ is when muscles can start to misbehave with the intent to protect your body after an injury or a period of chronic stress. Instead of staying relaxed, certain muscles will activate and contract involuntarily, causing the surrounding area to tighten up. This is a bit like muscle memory, the muscles will tighten up defensively, sometimes long after the original injury or stress has gone away.
Muscle guarding can be an exasperating situation for the sufferer. For example, an athlete may have previously injured a gluteal muscle. Then, due to the trauma, the glute muscle may shut down while other muscles, for example, the psoas or ITB rev up to take control of the situation. When the athlete performs a certain motion, instead of the glutes firing, the surrounding muscles go into spasm and ‘guard’ the area.
Sufferers of this phenomena can retrain their muscles with slow, repetitive movements under minimal or no load. This type of repetitive movement allows the body to understand that it is safe to use the desired muscle or muscles again. By performing this proprioceptive re-patterning, biomechanics change and the surrounding muscles will no longer need to take over.
Like with trigger points, muscle guarding can also be treated effectively with massage. From a massage therapist’s perspective muscle guarding may manifest as an obviously stiff, awkward feeling in the joint or limb movement – like the muscles are resisting movement imposed from the outside.
With careful observation and listening to the client, you can gain an understanding of the original source of the trauma and the ongoing issue. Gentle massage and pressure can then be applied to relax the muscles and loosen areas of tightness so that muscles that have been chronically contracted can return to a normal and pain-free function.
Sage Institute of Massage – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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