Trigger points or trigger sites are described as hyperirritable spots in skeletal muscle that are associated with palpable nodules in taut bands of muscle fibers. Trigger point researchers believe that palpable nodules are small contraction knots and a common cause of 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 entirely contracting whereas the local twitch response also refers to the entire muscle but only involves a small twitch, no contraction.
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, allowing practitioners to associate pain in one location with trigger points elsewhere. Many chiropractors and massage therapists find the model useful in practice, but the medical community at large has not embraced trigger point therapy. Although trigger points do appear to be an observable phenomenon with defined properties, there is a lack of a consistent methodology for diagnosing trigger points and a dearth of theory explaining how trigger points arise and why they produce specific referred pain patterns.
Trigger points have a number of qualities. They may be classified as active/latent and also as key/satellites and primary/secondary.
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.
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 often will resolve the satellite and return it from being active to latent, or completely treating it too.
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, radiculopathy, infections and health issues such as smoking.
Trigger points can appear in many myofascial structures including muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, joint capsule, periosteal, and scar tissue. When 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.
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