Friday 15th September, 2023

How to release (treat) muscle knots yourself

Osteopath doing muscle knot therapy
In this article we show you how do do safe effective muscle knot therapy on yourself

Muscle knots are a very common problem, and are usually involved in most cases of musculoskeletal pain such as back, neck or shoulder pain. Unfortunately if you’ve had these for some time you will understand that professional therapies including needles, lasers, massage techniques and various medications are expensive and usually just give temporary relief.

What we’ll do is show you three different therapies you can do yourself which work as well, if not better that the professional therapies. So the relief is not just temporary we’ll also show you some excellent strategies to stop them coming back, and better still help prevent them in the first place.


What are muscle knots
Your home therapy options
How to stop your muscle knots coming back
How to prevent muscle knots
Advice for specific conditions (eg. back pain)

What are muscle knots

Of course muscle knots are not actually knots. They are part of the muscle that has spasmed or cramped forming a lump. Their technical name is (myofascial) trigger points. For more complete information please see our article Your Complete Guide To (Myofascial) Trigger Points , but here we will give you a quick summary of:

  • what they are (important for treatment)
  • symptoms and diagnosis (do you have them?)
  • how they grow (prevention and stopping them coming back)
Trigger point: positive feedback loop

What are the lumps

As mentioned, the lumps are part of the muscle that has gone into spasm or cramped. When it does this it tightens them muscle, pressing on the soft walled blood vessels, restricting blood flow. As shown in this diagram, this causes a build up of waste products which tends to increase the spasm. This forms what is known as a positive feedback loop, which means once muscle knots get started they tend to “feed themselves” and grow.

Inflammation and adhesion

We have read articles saying that muscle knots involve inflammation and adhesions. This is usually wrong, so of course leads to totally inappropriate advice.

Trigger point chart

The symptoms of muscle knots

The main symptom of muscle knots is muscular tightness and pain. Scientists have mapped where each of these send pain to and have produced charts like these. As you can see they are able to cause pain in most areas of your body. Because the muscles are tight with reduced blood flow tiredness and easy fatigue are common. They can also cause a host of seemingly unrelated problems. For more details please see this this article.

How muscle knots are diagnosed

Muscle knots are identified by examining the muscle, looking for the characteristic tightness with a tender lump that shoots pain when you press on it. They do not show up in any standard medical scans or laboratory tests. What that means is a professional who deals with muscle knots (eg. massage therapists, chiropactors or physios) will find and identify them in about two seconds, whereas a medical doctor will usually not find them. Of course in the next section we will show you how to easily find them yourself.

Snow ball effect
Like a snowball muscle knots gradually grow until they are large enough to cause pain

How muscle knots grow

Muscle knots start small and gradually grow. As discussed above they keep growing because the muscle spasm tightens the muscle restricting blood flow causing a build up of waste products, but as we discuss in the section on prevention below most people do things to help them along as well. Because of this muscle knots usually gradually grow like snowballs rolling down a hill.

Causing pain

At the start you will not know the knots are there unless someone presses on them. However, once a muscle knot is large enough it can can take very little to aggravate it so it shoots pain. What this means is you may have muscle knots and not know it, then something very small or trivial can start pain such as back pain.

Stopping pain

Pain that comes and goes

Muscle knots can also stop shooting pain. It is quite common to have muscle knots that shoot pain if you do something such as exercise, then settle down once rested. In this case the pain comes and goes, but the muscle knots are always there.

Pain that stops with treatment

The same thing can happen when muscle knots are treated. The treatment stops the pain, but the knots are still there so they are eventually re-aggravated and the pain comes back again .

Prevention and stopping the pain coming back.

Understanding this the strategy we will cover includes:

  1. providing you with effective self treatment options that you can continue to use after the pain goes, helping to diminish and eliminate the muscle knots, and
  2. giving you prevention strategies to help avoid the things that help muscle knots grow.

Easy effective home therapies

In this section we will show you how to to treat muscle knots yourself. We will start with how to find them, then three effective home therapies. Standard disclaimer: this is general information only, to be discussed with a professional familiar with your needs.

How to find muscle knots
Technique one: pressure release
Technique two: pressure with massage
Technique three: vibration massage (Recommended)

How to find your muscle knots

The main calf muscles and their trigger points

Where to look

We have linked articles below covering many areas of your body and common problems. These articles have specific instructions and diagrams like this example. Alternatively, you may ask a professional for advice.

The examination technique

You can use the following technique to find most of your muscle knots.

Trigger point examination: general
Start with a general examination looking for tenderness and tightness
Step one

Start by using the pads of several fingers to generally examine your muscles looking for areas of tenderness and tightness.

Trigger point examination: specific
When a tight or tender spot is found examine more deeply with one or two fingers
Step two

When an area of tightness or tenderness is found use one or two fingers to examine more deeply. Looking for tightness, tenderness and lumps. Generally you will find tight bands of muscle, and if you explore along these bands you will find localized areas of tightness centred around lump. Those lumps are the muscle knots. When pressed upon these will be very tender and often cause pain elsewhere.

Pressure release technique


This technique simply involves temporarily applying pressure to the muscle knots. These techniques are very commonly used, and vary from moderate pressure to therapists who use extremely painful pressure and hold until it fades. The good news is that clinical trials have shown the moderate pressure techniques to be very effective. For this guide I’ll show you two techniques: one you can use for muscles you can easily reach with your own hands, and another technique for where you need to use a mechanical tool to apply pressure.

Trigger point release: thumb pressure
Applying pressure to the trigger point with the thumb
Pressure with your hand

Use this technique for muscle knots you can easily reach and apply pressure with using your own hands. For this technique find the muscle knot, then apply moderate pressure until you feel the pain fade and the muscle relax, or to a maximum of 90 seconds.

Trigger point therapy using tool
Applying pressure to the trigger point using a tool
Pressure with a tool

For muscle knots you cannot reach with your hands you can use a tool such as the trigger point cane shown to apply pressure. You are able to apply a lot more damaging pressure using a tool, so to keep you safe yet get great results we recommend you use a traditional Thai self massage technique. This has used very successfully in a clinical trial, giving great results . For each muscle knot use the tool to apply moderate pressure for 10 seconds then release. This is repeated five times.

Don’t use foam rollers or balls

For reasons discussed in our article Can foam roller be harmful we recommend you don’t apply this pressure with rollers or balls. In summary, it’s not very effective and potentially dangerous.

Pressure with massage


This technique is more effective because it adds massage which helps circulate fresh blood to help flush the wastes. However, you can only use it of parts of your body you can easily reach with your hands.

Trigger point release: pressure with massage
Using the thumb to provide pressure and massage

Applying the technique

  • Start by lubricating the muscle with some form of oil. It doesn’t need to be special, just slippery.
  • Using your thumb or fingers apply pressure and move slowly along the muscle as if you are squeezing out an old sponge. Because there are one way valves in your veins and lymphatic vessels do this towards your heart. Continue using a systematic pattern to cover the whole muscle, working gradually deeper each stroke.
  • If you come to a tight spot or trigger point stop and maintain pressure for 5-10 seconds before slowly moving on. The stroking is an effective form of massage, whereas the stopping and holding pressure is an effective pressure technique.

Using a vibration massager (recommended)

Trigger point release using vibration massager
Trigger point release using vibration massager (normally done clothed)

Description and usage

This is by far the easiest, safest and most effective of the home techniques, but you need a proper vibration massager. We’ve got a separate article How to use a hand held massager that gives full details, but simply speaking all you need to do is sit the head of the massager over the trigger point and let the vibrations penetrate. Properly designed vibration massagers have ergonomically designed handles to allow you reach and apply this therapy anywhere on your body.

Vibration: trigger point therapy
Vibration massage works on all the issues
Why vibration massage works

Looking back at how trigger points form we see that it involves spasm, reduced blood flow and a build up of toxic wastes basically going around in circles feeding on each other. Scientists have found that vibrations help each of these issues, so the vibrations from the massager will gradually “dissolve” the trigger points.

You will need a proper vibration massager (not a massage gun)

To use this therapy you will need a proper therapeutic vibration massager. A lot of personal use massagers are not serious therapeutic devices, but rather are designed to look good on shop shelves and make good mothers day presents. Further, for the reasons below percussion massagers (massage guns) are totally unsuitable. For advice on how to get a device that will do a great job for you please see our article How to choose a massager .

Vibration vs percussion vs conventional
Why massage guns are not suitable

Percussion massagers (massage guns) are hybrid devices that attempt to combine vibration and conventional massage. Looking at this diagram the machine on the left is a genuine vibration massager. As you van see it has a pad designed to send large amounts of therapeutic vibrations into your muscles. The tool on the right is a t-bar which therapists use to save their thumbs and apply deep (painful) pressure. Massage guns are basically t-bars fitted with a jack-hammer mechanism.

Rather than combine vibration and convention massage massage guns are just a marketing gimmick that deliver far less of the therapeutic vibrations needed to “dissolve” muscle knots, while increasing the risk of a conventional t-bar type tool doing damage.

We built our own

When looking for a suitable machine for our patients to use we were frustrated by only finding gimmick laden machines that were not serious therapeutic devices, so we built our own. These pack the effectiveness of a professional unit into an economical machine that is easily used by patients at home. For more information on these please see the links below.
General Purpose Massager
Ultimate Quad Head Massager
What professionals say about DrGraeme massagers

How to stop the pain coming back

The main reason pain keeps coming back after therapy or a course of treatment is that all these usually do is temporarily stop them hurting. As well, most people keep doing the things that cause the knots to develop. In this section we will show you how to use therapy to eliminate the knots rather than just relieve the pain. In the next section we will discuss things you can do to stop them developing.

How to use therapy to eliminate the knots

As discussed in our article Why do trigger points keep coming back , most therapies merely stop the pain but do not remove the muscle knot. It feels like the problem is fixed, but of course it is still there.

Repeated therapies over time will reduce the size of muscle knots and eventually eliminate them. To do this though means continuing regular therapies for long after the pain has gone. If using professional therapies this would be prohibitively expensive, but is easily achieved using home the home therapies.

The simple strategy to eliminate muscle knots is to use the home therapies above to first stop the pain, then continue regular applications until you cannot find them when doing an examination (ie. no tightness or tender lump). After that use less frequent but regular home therapy to prevent the muscle knots from re-forming.

How to prevent muscle knots

Blood vessels being compressed
A big cause of muscle knots is tight muscles restricting blood flow

What causes muscle knots

There are many causes of muscle knots including injury, muscle overload and emotional stress. However, the biggest cause is where muscle tightness restricts blood blood flow creating an environment of accumulated wastes and reduced nutrients in your muscles. This is why muscle knots are so common where postural issues (eg. sitting at a computer) or repetitive activities cause muscle tightness. It is also important to note that psychological and emotional issues can cause your muscle to tense, restricting blood flow and causing muscle knots to develop. Here are some basic ways you can help stop muscle knots from forming.

Avoid postures or activities that tighten your muscles

We have used the common example of sitting at a desk. However, there are may other activities that could cause issues. Our government worksafe has this excellent practical reference that covers most situations, including how to set up your chair and desk.

Regular breaks

If you are in a situation such as sitting at a desk where your muscles may tighten take regular breaks, doing some light stretches or exercises.

Muscular maintenance

Likely you will be able to reduce the amount of muscle knots that form but not stop them completely. Regular massages or the regular use of any of the the techniques above will help find muscle knots and take care of them while they are small.

Psychological and emotional stresses

Is these issues are causing you to tighten your muscles a lot seek some professional help on how to deal with them.

BONUS: Trigger point release (therapy) for various parts of your body

You should be able to use the basic examination and therapy techniques shown for most muscles of your body. To help further we’ve done articles showing specific techniques for many areas of your body. Remember: (myofascial) trigger points is the technical name for muscle knots.

Self massage and trigger point therapy for headaches and migraines
Massage and trigger point therapy for low back pains with self help options
Massage and trigger point therapy for calf pain, with self help options
Massage and trigger point therapy for shoulder pain with self help options
Self massage and trigger point therapy for tennis elbow
Does massage help with fibromyalgia, with self help advice

We are continually adding more information on research and uses. Subscribe below to have us email them to you "hot off the press".

Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more

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