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The trigger point model states that unexplained pain frequently radiates from these points of local tenderness to broader areas, sometimes distant from the trigger point itself. Practitioners claim to have identified reliable referred pain patterns which associate pain in one location with trigger points elsewhere. There is variation in the methodology for diagnosis of trigger points and a dearth of theory to explain how they arise and why they produce specific patterns of referred pain.
Compression of a trigger point may elicit local tenderness, referred pain, or local twitch response. The local twitch response is not the same as a muscle spasm. This is because a muscle spasm refers to the entire muscle contracting whereas the local twitch response also refers to the entire muscle but only involves a small twitch, no contraction.
Among MDs, many specialists are well versed in trigger point diagnosis and therapy. These include physiatrists (physicians specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation), family medicine, and orthopedics. Osteopathic as well as chiropractic schools also include trigger points in their training. Other health professionals, such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists and structural integrators are also aware of these ideas and many of them make use of trigger points in their clinical work as well.
The term "trigger point" was coined in 1942 by Dr. Janet Travell to describe a clinical finding with the following characteristics:
Practitioners do not necessarily agree on what constitutes a trigger point.
A 2007 review of diagnostic criteria used in studies of trigger points concluded that
The main innovation of Travell's work was the introduction of the myofascial pain syndrome concept (myofascial referring to the combination of muscle and fascia). This is described as a focal hyperirritability in muscle that can strongly modulate central nervous system functions. Travell and followers distinguish this from fibromyalgia, which is characterized by widespread pain and tenderness and is described as a central augmentation of nociception giving rise to deep tissue tenderness that includes muscles. Studies estimate that in 75–95 percent of cases, myofascial pain is a primary cause of regional pain. Myofascial pain is associated with muscle tenderness that arises from trigger points, focal points of tenderness, a few millimeters in diameter, found at multiple sites in a muscle and the fascia of muscle tissue. Biopsy tests found that trigger points were hyperirritable and electrically active muscle spindles in general muscle tissue.
Trigger points may be classified as potential, active, or latent and also classified as key versus satellite and as primary versus secondary.
There are a few more than 620 potential trigger points possible in human muscles. These trigger points, when they become active or latent, show up in the same places in muscles in every person. That is, trigger point maps can be made that are accurate for everyone.
An active trigger point is one that actively refers pain either locally or to another location (most trigger points refer pain elsewhere in the body along nerve pathways). A latent trigger point is one that exists, but does not yet refer pain actively, but may do so when pressure or strain is applied to the myoskeletal structure containing the trigger point. Latent trigger points can influence muscle activation patterns, which can result in poorer muscle coordination and balance. Active and latent trigger points are also known as "Yipe" points, for obvious reasons.
A key trigger point is one that has a pain referral pattern along a nerve pathway that activates a latent trigger point on the pathway, or creates it. A satellite trigger point is one which is activated by a key trigger point. Successfully treating the key trigger point will often resolve the satellite, either converting it from being active to latent or completely treating it.
In contrast, a primary trigger point in many cases will biomechanically activate a secondary trigger point in another structure. Treating the primary trigger point does not treat the secondary trigger point.
Activation of trigger points may be caused by a number of factors, including acute or chronic muscle overload, activation by other trigger points (key/satellite, primary/secondary), disease, psychological distress (via systemic inflammation), homeostatic imbalances, direct trauma to the region, collision trauma (such as a car crash which stresses many muscles and causes instant trigger points) radiculopathy, infections and health issues such as smoking.
Trigger points form only in muscles. They form as a local contraction in a small number of muscle fibers in a larger muscle or muscle bundle. These in turn can pull on tendons and ligaments associated with the muscle and can cause pain deep within a joint where there are no muscles. The integrated hypothesis theory states that trigger points form from excessive release of acetylcholine which produces sustained depolarization of muscle fibers. These sustained contractions of muscle sarcomeres compresses local blood supply restricting the energy needs of the local region. This crisis of energy produces sensitizing substances that interact with some nociceptive (pain) nerves traversing in the local region which in turn can produce localized pain within the muscle at the neuromuscular junction (Travell and Simons 1999). When trigger points are present in muscles there is often pain and weakness in the associated structures. These pain patterns in muscles follow specific nerve pathways and have been readily mapped to allow for identification of the causative pain factor. Many trigger points have pain patterns that overlap, and some create reciprocal cyclic relationships that need to be treated extensively to remove them.
Trigger points are diagnosed by examining signs, symptoms, pain patterns and manual palpation. A 2009 review of nine studies examining the reliability of trigger point diagnosis found that physical examination could not be recommended as reliable for the diagnosis of trigger points.
Usually there is a taut band in muscles containing trigger points, and a hard nodule can be felt. Often a twitch response can be felt in the muscle by running your finger perpendicular to the muscle's direction; this twitch response often activates the "all or nothing" response in a muscle that causes it to contract. Pressing on an affected muscle can often refer pain. Clusters of trigger points are not uncommon in some of the larger muscles, such as the gluteus group (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus). Often there is a heat differential in the local area of a trigger point, and many practitioners can sense that. In 2007, a paper was presented describing images of trigger points taken by modified MRI.
The misdiagnosis of pain is the most important issue taken up by Travell and Simons. Referred pain from trigger points mimics the symptoms of a very long list of common maladies, but physicians, in weighing all the possible causes for a given condition, rarely consider a myofascial source. The study of trigger points has not historically been part of medical education. Travell and Simons hold that most of the common everyday pain is caused by myofascial trigger points and that ignorance of that basic concept could inevitably lead to false diagnoses and the ultimate failure to deal effectively with pain.
A 2008 review in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation of two recent studies concludes they present groundbreaking findings that can reduce some of the controversy surrounding the cause and identification of myofascial trigger points (MTPs). The study by Chen on the use of magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) imaging of the taut band of an MTP in an upper trapezius muscle may present a convincing demonstration of the cause of MTP symptoms. MRE is a modification of existing magnetic resonance imaging equipment to image stress produced by adjacent tissues with different degrees of tension. This report presents an MRE image of the taut band that shows the V-shaped signature of the increased tension compared with surrounding tissues. Results were all consistent with the concept that taut bands are detectable and quantifiable with MRE imaging. The findings in the subjects suggest that the stiffness of the taut bands in patients with myofascial pain may be 50% greater than that of the surrounding muscle tissue. The findings suggest that MRE can quantitate asymmetries in muscle tone that could previously only be identified subjectively by examination.
In the study by Shah and associates, they have shown the feasibility of continuous, in vivo recovery of small molecules from soft tissue without harmful effects. With this technique, they have been able to investigate the biochemical milieu of muscle in subjects with active, latent, or absent myofascial trigger points (MTrPs) and to contrast this with that of the noninvolved muscle.
In a June 2000 review, Chang-Zern Hong correlates the MTrP "tender points" to acupunctural "ah shi" ("Oh Yes!") points, and the "local twitch response" to acupuncture's "de qi" ("needle sensation"), based on a 1977 paper by Melzack et al. Peter Dorsher comments on a strong correlation between the locations of trigger points and classical acupuncture points, finding that 92% of the 255 trigger points correspond to acupuncture points, including 79.5% with similar pain indications.
MTP therapists may use myotherapy (deep pressure as in Bonnie Prudden's approach, massage or tapotement as in Dr. Griner's approach), mechanical vibration, pulsed ultrasound, electrostimulation, ischemic compression, injection (see below), dry-needling, "spray-and-stretch" using a cooling (vapocoolant) spray, Low Level Laser Therapy and stretching techniques that invoke reciprocal inhibition within the musculoskeletal system. Practitioners use elbows, feet or various tools to direct pressure directly upon the trigger point, to save their hands.
A successful treatment protocol relies on identifying trigger points, resolving them and, if all trigger points have been deactivated, elongating the structures affected along their natural range of motion and length. In the case of muscles, which is where most treatment occurs, this involves stretching the muscle using combinations of passive, active, active isolated (AIS), muscle energy techniques (MET), and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching to be effective. Fascia surrounding muscles should also be treated, possibly with myofascial release, to elongate and resolve strain patterns, otherwise muscles will simply be returned to positions where trigger points are likely to re-develop.
The results of manual therapy are related to the skill level of the therapist. If trigger points are pressed too short a time, they may activate or remain active; if pressed too long or hard, they may be irritated or the muscle may be bruised, resulting in pain in the area treated. This bruising may last for a 1–3 days after treatment, and may feel like, but is not similar to, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the pain felt days after overexerting muscles. Pain is also common after a massage if the practitioner uses pressure on unnoticed latent or active trigger points, or is not skilled in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Evidence based medicine researchers concluded as of 2001 that evidence for the usefulness of trigger points in the diagnosis of fibromyalgia is thin. More recently, an association has been made between fibromyalgia tender points and active trigger points.
Injections without anesthetics, or dry needling, and injections including saline, local anesthetics such as procaine hydrochloride (Novocain), steroids, and botulinum toxin provide more immediate relief and can be effective when other methods fail. In regards to injections with anesthetics, a low concentration, short acting local anesthetic such as procaine 0.5% without steroids or adrenalin is recommended. High concentrations or long acting local anesthetics as well as epinephrine can cause muscle necrosis, while use of steroids can cause tissue damage.
Despite the concerns about long acting agents, a mixture of lidocaine and marcaine is often used. A mixture of 1 part 2% lidocaine with 3 parts 0.5% bupivacaine (trade name:Marcaine) provides 0.5% lidocaine and 0.375% bupivacaine. This has the advantages of immediate anesthesia with lidocaine during injection to minimize injection pain while providing a longer duration of action with a lowered concentration of bupivacaine.
In 1979, a study by Czech physician Karl Lewit reported that dry needling had the same success rate as anesthetic injections for the treatment of trigger points. He dubbed this the 'needle effect'.
Treatment, whether by self or by a professional, has some inherent dangers. It may lead to damage of soft tissue and other organs. The trigger points in the upper quadratus lumborum, for instance, are very close to the kidneys and poorly administered treatment (particularly injections) may lead to kidney damage. Likewise, treating the masseter muscle may damage the salivary glands superficial to this muscle. Furthermore, some experts believe trigger points may develop as a protective measure against unstable joints.
Studies to date on the efficacy of dry needling for MTrPs and pain have been too small to be conclusive.
Trigger points have been a subject of study by a small number of doctors for several decades although this has not become part of mainstream medicine. The existence of tender areas and zones of induration in muscles has been recognized in medicine for many years and was described as muscular rheumatism or fibrositis in English; German terms included myogelose and myalgie. However, there was little agreement about what they meant. Important work was carried out by J. H. Kellgren at University College Hospital, London, in the 1930s and, independently, by Michael Gutstein in Berlin and Michael Kelly in Australia. The latter two workers continued to publish into the 1950s and 1960s. Kellgren conducted experiments in which he injected hypertonic saline into healthy volunteers and showed that this gave rise to zones of referred extremity pain. Janet G. Travell's work with trigger point and treatment of US John F. Kennedy's back pain led to her being asked to be the first female Personal Physician to the President.
Today, much treatment of trigger points and their pain complexes are handled by myofascial trigger point therapists, massage therapists, physical therapists, osteopathic physicians (DOs), occupational therapists, myotherapists, and certified athletic trainers, as well as some naturopaths, chiropractors, dentists and acupuncturists, and other hands-on somatic practitioners who have had experience or training in the field of neuromuscular therapy (NMT).