Don't forget about the muscles

To some this may seem like a silly concept, but I’ve noticed that many patients and clinicians aren’t giving muscles their due attention. Pain can be generated from a variety of structures in the body, and I often see that one structure is blamed while an entirely separate structure actually generates the pain. This is particularly true with muscles.

Take the low back, for instance. The public has a tendency to blame the intervertebral disks between the bones for their low back pain. Yes, the disks tend to degrade with age, but that is no guarantee of pain. Many times, we are trying to find a single structure to blame for what is really a long-term problem that stems from a lack of activity and poor postural habits that weaken and stress the spine’s stabilizing muscles.

Another issue to consider is that structures can interact to cause pain. At the low back again, consider that increased muscle tension will change how the spine’s joints move and will change the stress on the nerves that exit out of the spine. In this instance it may be necessary to treat multiple structures. Both the muscle and the nerves could be causing pain. Also, weak spine and hip muscles may have led to premature wear and tear on the spinal joints and disks. There can be a lack of overall stability in the hip and low back region. Treating one area is insufficient.

Trigger point Pain referral pattern from a single hip muscle, image courtesy of

Trigger point Pain referral pattern from a single hip muscle, image courtesy of

I expect we partly have an educational bias to blame for this issue. If instructors didn’t spend time describing muscle pain and appropriate treatments, then it must not happen that much, right? Unfortunately that's not true. Prior to the work of Drs. Travell and Simons in the 1940s, few practitioners cared about “myofascial trigger points” or muscle pain referral. And perhaps it’s difficult for the medical profession and the public to accept that a muscle generated or trigger point pain isn’t going to produce an extraordinary finding on an MRI, CT or X-ray image. And no matter what tissue it is, imaging does not guarantee pain in the presence of a damaged structure. Sometimes people have pain with little to no visible tissue damage.

Often there are patients who do have a good understanding of the underlying problem because they are able to touch the affected tissue and have figured out that massaging or placing pressure on the correct muscles makes them feel better for a while. That’s a good sign that soft tissue treatment techniques would be effective. A good exam and assessment all of the appropriate structures is the key here. Physical Therapy and certain types of massage therapy would be excellent methods to treat this type of muscle pain. Following up the hands-on soft tissue work with strengthening exercises is a great option to prevent recurrence.

Please let me know if you have any questions about muscle pain identification and treatment at