Acupuncture, Health, Wellness, and Chinese Medicine Resource
BY MELANIE MILLER, L.OM, DIPL.OM.
One of the most common complaints that we see in the acupuncture clinic is joint pain, particularly various types of back pain. While many acupuncturists will address the area of discomfort directly (for example, inserting needles in the lumbar region of the low back), it can be more helpful to assess whether trigger points are causing the trouble. What are trigger points? Trigger points are nodes of hypersensitive tissue that results from a shortening of the muscle fibers in a certain band of muscle tissue. The interesting thing about trigger points are that they can often cause “referred pain”, meaning you experience a pain pattern in a different area than the site of the trigger point itself.
To illustrate with a recent example from the clinic: last month a middle-aged woman who was suffering from hip pain, which she attributed to aging and/or poor posture, came in for acupuncture. I noticed that the description of her symptoms matched a trigger point pattern for one of the deep muscles of the buttock group. I made sure that she was arranged in a very comfortable side-lying position on the treatment table, and inserted needles in the gluts just above and behind where she experienced the pain. After about 35 minutes on the table, she reported that the pain was gone. The next time that I saw her, she exclaimed that the pain hadn’t come back at all and she was stunned that this lingering issue could be resolved in just one treatment. Of course, lifestyle and postural recommendations can always help to make sure that the stress on the body does not return.
So, how do trigger points work? Trigger points are often (but not always) found right near motor points, which are areas in the muscle structure of high nerve conductivity. The motor nerve from the spine enters the muscle at the motor point, which allows our muscle to flex, contract and perform bodily functions. Electrical current applied to motor points will cause the muscle itself to contract….without any input from the person! By using acupuncture at the trigger point, the motor activity of the muscle band is coaxed into relaxation, allowing the tight and contracted muscle fibers to return to their elongated position. This lengthening effect interrupts the cascade of biochemical molecules that are produced when muscles are in a knotted, contractile state.
Many factors contribute to the production of trigger points, including repetitive motions, poor posture and erratic exercise practices. The tight, tender area of a trigger point is often what we focus on -- think about trying to “rub away” tension in your weary neck muscles! Unfortunately, the integrity of the tissue around the trigger point becomes compromised, which can lead to range of motion issues, de-conditioning of activated muscles, and over-stimulation of pain masking neurochemicals in the brain. Thankfully, acupuncture can be a very effective way to reduce trigger points all over the body. I have seen many cases of chronic, stubborn pain be relieved with a few sessions of targeted and thoughtful acupuncture treatments.
The types of conditions that are treated with trigger point acupuncture can be quite varied, but typical conditions are: