Shoulder Knots? Try this Trigger Point Release

Article by Lucas Rockwood

Do you get painful tight spots in your upper back, shoulders, and scapula area? If you go to a body worker, you might be told you have a trigger point, a knot, or even myofascial pain syndrome.

The good news is most of the time these painful areas can be fixed quickly at home on your own, thanks to stretches, strengthening exercises, and self-massage techniques that help with both short and long-term relief.

In this article we’ll walk you through a 10-minute routine you can practice daily. It includes stretches that will take the muscles in your upper body through their full range of motion to help combat atrophy, as well as additional stretches to strengthen them. There’s also a quick self-massage tip for immediate pain relief.

Common Causes of Upper Back and Shoulder Pain

Aches and pains in this area of the body are extremely common. Why? Because most of us don’t make full use of the muscles in our upper back and shoulders – the trapezius muscles, rhomboids, and levator scapulae specifically.

Your trapezius muscles form a diamond shape in your middle and upper back. They contract to elevate your shoulders and retract your scapula to shrug / unshrug your shoulders. The levator scapulae work with the upper traps, while the rhomboids assist the middle traps in their movements.

Lack of use can cause these muscles to become weak and atrophied. You also carry a lot of stress in your upper back, making the fibers in these muscles hypersensitive and often stuck in a contracted state. In the same way you can get stuck in a hyper anxious state, so can your muscles.

Corrective Exercises

This three-pronged approach will tackle pain, improve mobility and strengthen the muscles in your upper back area.

Download PDF pose chart

Part I: Mobility Exercises

Windshield Wipers

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides, fingers spread
  • Lift your right arm above your head into full shoulder flexion
  • Rotate your right arm outward so your fingers twist
  • Rotate your left arm inward
  • Repeat, corkscrewing your arms, so your right arm rotates inwards and left arm outwards at the same time
  • Inhale through your nose as your rotate, exhale through your mouth
  • Repeat for 10 rounds total

Swordfish & Vampire

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms straight out in front of you, fingers closed
  • Drop your head, turn your hands to face each other, and separate (protract) your shoulder blades as much as you can, inhaling through your nose
  • Now, imagine you’re gripping a tennis ball in each hand, squeeze your shoulder blades behind your back (retract) as you exhale through your mouth
  • Repeat for four more rounds

Side Shrug

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms behind you
  • Grab hold of your left wrist with your right hand, straighten your left arm
  • Inhale as you shrug your right ear towards your right shoulder
  • Exhale as you return, then switch sides
  • Repeat twice on each side
  • Release your head and arms, shake it out

Arrow & Slouch

  • Stand width your feet hip-width apart, arms behind you, hands interlaced
  • Try to keep upright, with your waist over your ankles
  • Puff up your chest and gently look up as you retract and squeeze your shoulder blades together, inhaling through your nose
  • Exhale through your mouth as you release
  • Next, drag your hands down towards your knees, drop your chin to your chest
  • Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth throughout
  • Repeat for four rounds
  • Relax and shake it out

Part II: Strengthening Exercises

Scapular Pushup

  • Start either on all fours or in a pushup position, whichever is most accessible
  • Inhale as you protract and open your shoulder blades
  • Exhale as you drop your chest down, retracting and squeezing your shoulder blades together
  • Repeat four times
  • Sit back, relax for a few moments, then do two more sets

High Row

  • If you have one, attach an exercise band to a ceiling mount. If not, close the band into the top corner of a door
  • Stand in front of the band, feet wider than your hips, weight into your lower body
  • Grab onto the band and spread both hands wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Place your hands together, inhale and pull them back towards your ears, with your elbows out like wings
  • Hold briefly, then exhale on the way back in
  • Repeat four times, then shake it out

Active Hang

  • From standing, hold a broomstick above your head, or hook your hands over the edge of an open door
  • Keep your hands wider than your shoulders, use your feet for support
  • Unshrug your shoulders a little (don’t passively hang) and hold here with your trapezius muscles engaged for 30 seconds
  • Breathe gently in and out through your nose throughout
  • You can also practice this pose with your feet off the ground, but don’t push too hard too soon
  • Release down and shake it out

Part III: Self-Massage

When you have hypersensitive tissue in your upper back and shoulders, often the muscle fibers are contracting and not releasing. A nervous system hack for this area specifically is to push and release. That might be a friend or a loved one using their elbow but it’s also helpful to do it yourself. You can use a foam roller or a ball–a tennis ball, softball, any small ball will do–but a ball often works better to get into isolated areas:

  • Lie on the floor and position your ball underneath your scapula, in the middle of your shoulder blade
  • Very quickly you should feel an intense sensation as it presses into your trapezius muscle
  • Keep your left foot flat on the floor, right leg extended, and move the ball in a circular motion – clockwise to the count of four, then counterclockwise for four
  • Next, move the ball a little further down your back to find the targeted area where you can feel it the most and repeat
  • Err on the side of caution and start off with just a minute or so each day, then build from there. If you spend too long doing this, you could make the problem worse.

Safety Disclaimer

Please do not use this video to diagnose or treat a severe injury. If you have neck pain, rather than a muscle problem, these stretches are not for you. If you have radiating nerve pain, please see a doctor.

This video is for educational purposes only. If you have a more specific shoulder injury, check out this video:

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