Easing (and Defeating) Muscle Tension, Knots, and Posture Problems

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: November 14, 2022

Easing (and Defeating) Muscle Tension, Knots, and Posture Problems

Occasional aches and pains from sitting too long, standing too long, and hunching over our laptops are all, unfortunately, really normal. The good news is that relief from that tightness and discomfort can feel great.

A thorough foam rolling session helps, as does a massage from a professional. But there’s one very efficient tool in our armamentarium: the Theragun, a percussive therapy device developed by chiropractor Jason Wersland.

  1. Therabody THERAGUN PRO
    Therabody THERAGUN PRO goop, $599

We had Wersland walk us through what’s really going on in our muscles when we’re feeling tension. He gives us tips for undoing it—and for getting to the bottom of annoying aches and knots.

A Q&A with Jason Wersland, DC

What’s the difference between muscle tension, knots, and trigger points?

When tension builds in the body, it’s due to lack of blood flow and increased involuntary contraction of the muscles. This issue actually comes from the white tissue on either end of a muscle, not from the muscle itself. The avascular white tissue at either end of a muscle contains something called the golgi tendon organ. When the golgi tendon is active, it actually relaxes the muscle it’s associated with. When it’s inactive, you feel tightness. This is the kind of discomfort you might feel if you wake up in the morning to tight hamstrings and limited movement.

You know how those black elastic hair ties have that point where the fabric is glued together, so it can’t stretch? That’s a good representation of a knot in our muscle. Muscles work because of fibers called actin and myosin, which bind and release from each other like Velcro—they hook to each other and release and hook and release over and over. When you have a knot, it’s because those fibers stay hooked to each other and won’t release, so the muscle won’t stretch back out as it’s supposed to. If I were to press on a knot, you’d feel pain right there.

A trigger point is a spot that radiates pain into another location of the body. So if I found a trigger point in one of your traps and I started massaging it out, you might feel it go up over your head and down into your nose.

How do you treat tightness or knots with massage?

When you’re treating the body with massage, it’s usually a systemic process. I’m not treating just the knot itself. Instead, I’m working through the entire body to increase blood flow. It’s like fixing a wrinkle in your bedsheet: You can’t fix all the wrinkles at once by pulling from one corner. You have to go around all four corners of the bed. It’s the same for muscles. You might have tightness or a knot or a trigger point, and it might feel as if it’s in one place, but it’s something bigger and deeper. You have to treat it globally.

And this might sound strange, but you’re working on the person’s energy, not just their body. It’s important that we recognize that that is a really important component of massage. There’s nothing that can replace having someone put their hands on you in an intentional way to try to get you to feel better.

How does percussive therapy work to manage muscle pain?

Percussive therapy with a tool like Theragun provides both pressure and vibration, which decrease the sensation of pain through different mechanisms. Pressure most likely affects sensitivity to pain through what we call the gate control theory of pain: Nonpainful inputs to the body close the nerve “gates” to painful inputs, reducing the signal itself. Vibration results in something called vibratory analgesia, which is when vibration effectively turns the volume down on pain by stimulating receptors that temporarily interfere with pain signals. Percussive motion also helps temporarily increase local blood flow over the course of a treatment, which may help promote healing and further reduce pain as well.

Can people treat muscle tension, knots, and trigger points by themselves?

Yes, they can. You can always give yourself a massage, and if you’re using percussive therapy with a Theragun, we have different protocols for tightness, knots, and trigger points that target each issue in a specific way. For example, if you have rhomboid pain in your back between your spine and your shoulder blade, we’ll give you a Theragun protocol—in the newest Theragun models, you can download these protocols right from the Therabody app via Bluetooth—to loosen your pec, pec minor, and your rotator muscles, which put tension on your rhomboids when you’re sitting at a laptop typing all day.

Other common issues we see a lot today usually come from hunching, looking downward, and drawing the head forward while we work on our computers and phones. That posture often creates pain in the low back and hamstrings, as well in the traps, shoulders, and neck. Targeted massage and Theragun protocols can help with a lot of the issues that build up in the body. But you can’t stop there. Your pain is coming from somewhere, and you have to fix the problem at its root if you don’t want it to come back. People usually don’t think of ergonomics until it’s too late.

How do you resolve and prevent muscle pain in the long run?

Posture and ergonomics are causing the problem, and posture and ergonomics are the long-term fix. However much time it took to build the problem, it’s going to take at least half that much time for the problem to go away.

You have to find the spots that are bothering you and figure out why they’re hurting in the first place. That’s the thing: If you bring your body to my clinic and say, “I hurt here,” I haven’t been with you for the past two weeks. I don’t know how you’ve been sitting or standing or walking or playing. I can ask some questions and help you figure it out, but ultimately you have to find a lot of your own answers. Those answers are going to be different for each person. A receptionist is going to have a different answer than a firefighter will, and a firefighter will have a different answer than a server at a restaurant does—even if their pain is in the same spot. I can give a single protocol to a group of postal workers, but not to a group of people with lower back pain.

Jason Wersland, DC, is the founder and chief wellness officer of Therabody.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.