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Understanding Referred Pain

Heather May 2, 2015

Many Massage Therapists talk about referred pain as "trigger points".  What are these trigger points and why is it when I feel pain in one location does the therapist work somewhere else and still get results?

I remember a client asking me about pain in their thumb and forefinger.  They had spent the majority of their day on the computer going back and forth between their mouse and keyboard.  I knew exactly how to alleviate their pain and began working on the forearm above their painful areas.  We were on friendly terms and they asked me why I spent so much time on that area when their pain was actually located elsewhere.  They were concerned that because I wasn't working their pain directly that they wouldn't see any good results from the massage.  It was a great question!

Muscles can be fairly large organs. Let's take the forearm as an example.  The forearm is made up of many smaller muscles that allow us to make all those detailed movements that are needed for things like typing, drawing or grasping.  These muscles are very long and have tendons that reach from the elbow and sometimes beyond the elbow, down into the fingertips themselves.  The hand has very few muscles in it at all, and much of those are even smaller muscles located in the fleshy part of your palm near your thumb.

One of the muscles that moves your thumb and forefinger is called the Brachioradialis.  A long name for a long muscle.  When this muscle becomes tight enough to cause pain, the pain tends to two one of two things.  It either runs the length of the muscle or it hurts in the area where the muscle is pulling.  Check out our Facebook page for some illustrations.

As you can see, the areas of dense red dots are where the majority of pain occurs and you may or may not get any sensation in the lighter density areas along the muscle belly itself.  Muscles are not an all or nothing organ.  If only one section of the muscle is tight, then only one area of the referral pattern will be present.  Your Massage Therapist has been trained to ask the right questions and palpate the right muscles to find out how to address your specific needs. That is why muscle dysfunction can be such a pain to heal fully, because everyone is different, and each person’s muscles react differently depending on how they are malfunctioning.

In this instance, I worked the muscle belly of the Brachioradialis to release the pull of that muscle on the fingers and my client found near instant relief! 

This is why communication during your massage is so important.  You are the only one who knows exactly how your body is experiencing your pain, we need you to tell us when we hit the right spot so we know what muscles we are needing to work on and where those hidden spots of pain might be!

Those hidden spots of pain are called “trigger points” because they are the area of the muscle that triggers pain in other locations.  Massage can address those areas and help you along your path to meeting your wellness goals!

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