Have you ever gone to bed feeling great, snuggled down, slept like a baby, and then woken up like you've aged 50 years? or been hit by a bus? Or maybe you just go to reach for your favourite unicorn mug to have your morning coffee, and suddenly your arm is heavier than it used to be and your shoulder is stiff? (Just me on the unicorn mug...). Well if any of those sounds familiar, chances are the muscle knot fairy has paid you a visit.
Oh if only I could tell you it was the muscle knot fairy, but in actual fact nobody knows! Honestly there are no 100% solid proven facts on this, there just hasn't been enough research to give a definitive answer. When I was at college we learnt all about the body in our anatomy and physiology classes. We learn the sliding filament theory, this is the theory of how a muscle contraction takes place, its pretty complicated and involves a whole bunch of words like filaments, actin and myosin. Although it has the word 'theory' in its name, it's the universally accepted explanation on what causes a muscles contraction, and has been since 1954. We learnt that, but I can't ever remember learning what causes "knots"
So what is a muscle knot? I can tell you what its not... It definitely not an actual knot (say that 5 times fast). If you envision your muscle tied up like a pretzel, then that's definitely not whats happening. The technical name for a muscle knot is a myofascial trigger point. It feels like a small nodule or lump in the muscle that is harder than the surrounding tissues. Unlike a knot in a shoe lace, it's an area of contracted muscle tissue. Often this is painful and feels like a dull nagging ache, or sometimes pain is only felt when pressure is applied; this pain can be felt in the same place as the lump, or it can refer pain elsewhere. It is also possible to have knots that don't cause any pain or discomfort (if you're lucky).
How do they form? Here is where things get complicated and the controversy starts, but first you need to know a little about the muscle itself. Skeletal muscle tissue is made up of different layers, muscle cells join together to form very fine fibres called myofibrils, these myofibrils then bundles together to make fascicles and bundles of these fascicles make up the structure of skeletal muscle. Within the myofibrils are sarcomeres, within the sarcomeres are filaments, it is here that filaments slide past each other to shorten and produce a contraction or lengthen to relax the muscle. There are many sarcomeres in each myofibril, so this is why parts of the same muscle can stay contracted and other parts can relax. e.g. in the case of a muscle knot. That bit is fact, now over to the theories.
The theories One of the theories is that in normal healthy relaxed muscle tissue, the fibres have a good blood supply and function well. They can slide past one another with ease and don't get stuck. (sliding filament theory). When the muscle contracts, these fibres tighten together, which for a short time is ok and normal, because when the muscles relaxes again, the fibres all loosen. However when the body is in a position that causes the muscles to stay contracted for longer, either looking down at your phone constantly so head is forward and neck extended or sat at a desk for hours, the fibres adhere together, blood supply reduces, muscle function is affected and over time a tight band of tissue begins to form.
Another theory is that when one unit within a muscle starts to get tired and not work properly, the body will call upon surrounding fibres to pick up the slack. However over time these fibres also get exhausted, and more recruits are needed. Blood supply to this area of muscle fibres becomes less and less and the cells no longer get all the ingredients they need to function, and thus the cycle continues. Meaning the muscles fibres get stuck in their contacted state, as they aren't getting the chemicals they need to relax (Again the sliding filament theory explains this). These contracted muscles fibres then eventually form a trigger point or knot.
Another theory is that toxins build up in the tissues, such as carbon dioxide, lactic acid etc and actually block the way for fresh blood supply, oxygen and nutrients to get into the cells and the muscle can't function because it doesn't have the ingredients it needs to work effectively, similar to the theory above just a different cause.
Finally it could be micro tears and damage to the muscle tissue, that when repaired forms scar tissue. This eventually leads to a build up of scarred muscles fibres, that aren't as flexible and that adhere together, eventually resulting in a muscle knot.
There are probably more theories out there too, my money is on the muscle knot fairy ;-) Muscle knots do exist because you can feel them, they can hurt a lot! Interfering in your life like you wouldn't believe.
So what can we do about those pesky knots? Inadequate blood supply is the common theme in the mysterious formation of the muscle knot, and what do we know is a super relaxing method of increasing blood supply to an area... MASSAGE!!! Like with most things, early intervention is best. As the theories suggest these fibres don't just decide to work again, but over time more fibres join the party, until its a myofascial trigger point rave party of pain! That dull ache nagging away at you, and sometimes even waking you up at night.
Prevention They are difficult to prevent because its unknown what is causing them but here are in my opinion some ways to give you a fighting chance.
Drink water - Keeping hydrated is vital, your body uses water for so many things, and one of them is it improves your circulation; adequate bloody supply is key remember.
Think about your posture - A relaxed posture is best, so your muscles aren't under constant stress. For example when sitting keep your shoulders back and down, and try to factor in breaks where you can stretch and relax any muscles that are starting to ache, listen to your body.
Exercise - Well known for increasing circulation and the removal of toxins from the body.
Stretch - Getting into the habit of doing some gentle stretching helps to elongate and loosen tight muscle. Interesting fact, you need to hold a stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds for it to be effective.
Massage - You don't need to wait until you need a massage, a regular massage is not only hugely beneficial to your well being, but it will improve bloody supply to the muscles helping them stay flexible and healthy, so don't wait until the muscle knot fairy has been.
A massage a day keeps the knot fairy at bay! haha a monthly massage is usually sufficient for maintaining healthy muscles, but I couldn't think of anything that rhymes with month... A massage a month keeps the knot fairy defunct? but seriously a regular massage along with staying healthy is in my opinion a great habit to get into, and if luck would have it I just might know someone who's particularly good at giving super relaxing massage ;-)
Thanks for reading folks stay healthy x