what is a muscle knot

What Is a Muscle Knot?


What is a Muscle knot? These stiff, palpable bands of tissue contain a hard nodule in the center. Also referred to as myofascial trigger points, muscle knots can cause pain painful and impede healthy movement and function.

Although muscle knots may cause discomfort and reduced range of motion, they are not generally serious and do respond well to treatment. Treatment depends on your specific condition.

What Causes Knots in Muscles?

A muscle knot is a mini-cramp or contraction that occurs within a small section of muscle, creating a tense, tight ball of muscle fibers. When a muscle tenses up, the blood supply to the microstructures within the muscle is compromised, preventing proper drainage of metabolic waste and other byproducts. It is believed the knot you feel and/or see is this buildup of waste material.

While researchers are still working to uncover more information about the science behind trigger points, common causes, and risk factors are better understood. Whether it’s injury, illness, or lifestyle factors, any condition or habit that increases muscle tension can cause trigger points.

  • Aging
  • Prolonged postures
  • Dehydration
  • Disease
  • Fatigue
  • Joint problems
  • Overuse
  • Poor nutrition
  • Psychological stress
  • Repetitive strain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Trauma

What Does a Muscle Knot Feel Like?

While muscle knots can occur throughout the body, they are most commonly found in the shoulders, neck, and back. Muscle knots are considered either active or latent. Active muscle knots hurt without being touched, and latent muscle knots hurt only when they are pressed.

Muscle knots are usually tender and tight. It’s also possible for muscle knots to twitch with or without being touched. Some muscle knots cause referred pain that is felt in nearby areas. For example, a muscle knot in the shoulder can refer pain down the arm and into the hand. In some cases, visible muscle knots appear like a small gumball just under the skin.

Tips and Treatments for Relief from Muscle Knots

So, we’ve explained what causes knots in muscles. Now, let’s talk about ways to release them after they have formed—or prevent them altogether.

Soft Tissue Mobilization

Soft tissue mobilization is a form of manual therapy used to release muscle fibers and break down the knots within. Soft tissue mobilization also improves circulation and helps reduce psychological stress: both of which are contributing factors to muscle knots.

Some therapists use tools for – instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM.) You can do self-mobilization at home or ask a partner to work on those hard-to reach-areas. There are also a wide variety of effective foam rollers and handheld and wearable massage tools available on the market today. If you can’t relieve stubborn, recurrent, or severely-painful trigger points with self-care, physical therapy may be the solution.

Dry Needling

Dry needling is the insertion of thin, filament needles through the skin and directly into the taut trigger point to release or inactivate muscle knots. This technique is performed in a sterile environment, by a trained and licensed physical or occupational therapist.

Dry needling allows the therapist to access areas they might not otherwise be able to reach with their hands. Research shows dry needling can help reduce pain, increase range of motion, and improve range of motion.


Regular aerobic and strengthening exercise offers a host of health and wellness benefits—including increasing blood flow to the muscles. That keeps muscles healthy and reduces the chemical imbalances that contribute to muscle knots.

While your first impulse may be to hold off on exercising if you have muscle knot pain, modifying your activity may actually be the better way to go. Try reducing the intensity of your workouts instead of skipping them altogether. You can combine low-impact activities like gentle yoga or aquatic therapy with manual therapy to release muscle knots until pain and tightness subside.


Gentle stretching is another way to elongate and release muscles and improve circulation to prevent or release muscle knots. Dynamic, sport-specific stretches before exercise help activate muscles and prepare them for physical activity. Static stretches, where you move a single muscle as far as it will go without pain and hold it for 45-60 seconds are ideal after working out, and just to keep muscles loose, flexible, and pain-free.

Lifestyle Changes

Believe it or not—your lifestyle has a lot to do with how your muscles feel and function. For example, if you tend to carry stress and tension in your neck and shoulders, you’ll probably develop painful muscle knots in that area soon enough.

Hunching over a screen for hours at a time causes something we call “or sore, tight muscles throughout the upper body. Muscles that don’t move enough or lack proper nourishment and hydration simply won’t perform as well as they should.

Feed your muscles with a nutritious, well-balanced diet. Make proper hydration a priority and take steps to reduce your stress and improve sleep habits for happy, healthy muscles and body.

Do you have stubborn trigger points that are affecting how you move, exercise, sleep, and work? Physical therapy can help. Physical therapists use these and other evidence-based therapies to alleviate pain and promote healing in patients with a wide range of painful musculoskeletal conditions.

Find a physical therapy clinic near you to schedule a new patient screening and start on your path to relief.

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