Holiday stress and trigger points

Do the holidays have you so stressed that you’re experiencing pain? If so, Asher Bogdanove, a third-year student in DMU’s doctor of physical therapy degree program, and Kari Smith, P.T., D.P.T., BCB-PMD, manager of the DMU Physical Therapy Clinic, here share some news you may be able to use. Read on to learn how you may be able to reduce stress-related pain.

The holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration, gift giving and joy. For many of us, however, the holidays can also be a significant source of stress. From the constant loop of holiday music on the radio to having to juggle work and holiday plans, it is all too easy to get overwhelmed this most wonderful time of the year.

Is the holiday scene causing you pain? Physical therapy may help.

With the stress mounting, it is not uncommon for people to experience muscle tension in the neck or shoulders. In fact, you may have caught yourself rubbing at a sore spot on your neck that just won’t go away, or you may be experiencing a headache that feels like a tight band wrapped around your skull. You’re not the only one. In fact, thousands of people experience these symptoms – including during stressful times like the holidays. The cause: trigger points.

What are trigger points?

Trigger points are “knots” located in taut bands of muscle. These points are often exquisitely tender and can refer pain to other parts of the body. Trigger points can also manifest in other ways – tension headaches, TMJ pain and tinnitus, to name a few. For example, a trigger point in the trapezius muscle can refer pain to the head causing that tight  band feeling. Trigger points are natural and found throughout the body; however, certain areas of the body (pelvis, shoulders, neck, face) are prone to trigger points that can cause significant discomfort.

What causes trigger points?

Trigger points are thought to be caused by some type of trauma to a muscle whether it’s over-shortening, overstretching or direct injury. This trauma causes the area of muscle to cramp up and cut off its own blood supply. Without proper blood flow, this patch of muscle builds up metabolic waste products and eventually causes a trigger point to form.1 How might this tie into holiday stress, you ask? Well, when we are stressed, we go into a flight or fight response. Our body tenses, we tend to breath shallowly and our shoulders rise. This posture causes certain muscles around the head and neck to be tight and short – prime breeding grounds for troublesome trigger points. The subsequent discomfort can cause more tension and guarding, a vicious cycle.

How can we treat trigger points?

We can resolve trigger points through several methods. Trigger point release therapy is often the most used treatment. This involves skilled application of pressure by a physical therapist to the trigger point until it releases, followed by gentle stretching of the muscle. Other treatments such as ultrasound or electrical stimulation have also been used.2 Another technique known as dry needling has been steadily gaining popularity in the treatment of trigger points. Dry needling is a minimally invasive treatment where a physical therapist locates a trigger point and inserts a thin, “dry” (without medication) needle into the muscle. Dry needling allows for a level of precision and depth of tissue release that is difficult to achieve with other treatments. Is there research behind this, you ask? Yes! In fact, a recent meta-analysis showed that dry needling is superior to placebo and other treatments in decreasing pain and increasing pain pressure threshold (the point at which you perceive pressure as pain).3


Trigger points are just one part of the puzzle of stress. However, for some people, treating them is a safe and effective way to reduce pain and promote a sense of relaxation. If you are suffering from trigger points, tension headaches or overall stress this holiday season, consider making an appointment at the DMU Clinic for treatment. The physical therapists at the DMU Clinic have advanced training  in all the treatments mentioned above and can help you keep functioning at your highest level. Call 515-271-1717 to schedule an appointment.

  1. Bron C, Dommerholt JD. Etiology of myofascial trigger points. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2012;16(5):439-44.
  2. Hsueh, T. , Cheng, P. , Kuan, T. & Hong, C. The immediate effectiveness of electrical nerve stimulation and electrical muscle stimulation on myofascial trigger points. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation 1997;76 (6), 471-476.
  3. Gattie E, Cleland JA, Snodgrass S. The Effectiveness of Trigger Point Dry Needling for Musculoskeletal Conditions by Physical Therapists: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2017 Mar;47(3):133-149. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2017.7096. Epub 2017 Feb 3. Review. PubMed PMID: 28158962.

Disclaimer: This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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