My two best self-care friends right now in my career as a bodyworker are a tool and a book that anyone can use. One of them provides daily relief from tight, achy back muscles caused by bending over slightly to massage clients. (I do Swedish and integrative massage, along with Ashiatsu and the biodynamic craniosacral therapy practice sessions I’m doing.)
Ma Roller (aka the spine aligner)
I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, and it bears mentioning again: daily use of a spine aligner keeps my back in shape. (Along with yoga, of course — even just a couple of sun salutations a day). I use it in bed, placing the center knobs between two vertebrae, somewhere between my shoulder blades, and lying back on it. When the muscles between those two vertebrae feel stretched and released, I move it down my spine one vertebrae at a time, all the way down to my sacrum.
My back feels so much better when I do this in the morning than when I don’t that I’m motivated to do it nearly every day, especially on days when I’ve got a lot of work.
I hesitate to lend my spine aligner out because once people try it, they want to keep it for themselves!
Plus, it tickles me that the first tool of this type is called the “Ma Roller”. That somehow gives it a worshipful quality to my mind. Ma Roller truly is a divine tool for keeping backs feeling good and flexible. (There are simpler versions without the foot ridges and single end knobs that mine has. You can Google and order the one you prefer online. )
Trigger point therapy
The other bosom buddy, a new one, is a book, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief, by Clair Davies with Amber Davies, second edition.
Studying trigger points was not part of my massage school curriculum. (I understand they’re adding it now.) I really didn’t know much about trigger point massage. It’s one of the two techniques (the other being myofascial release) that are considered “deep tissue massage” — commonly considered the kind of massage that “hurts so good” or “hurts now, feels good after the bruises go away”.
After I started giving several massages a day, several days a week, I did know pain: muscle pain, painful tendons, achiness, burning, tightness, a thick hard ropy quality to muscles like I find on clients. And sometimes self-massaging those muscles felt good but didn’t last. The sore places became chronic.
I was traveling with a friend who’s a massage therapist and educator who explained trigger points to me and helped me find one in my neck so I could experience referral: press into a tender Point A and hold it, and pain arises in Point B, often surprisingly distant. (Although some trigger points are just painful at Point A.)
Eventually I got the workbook and started checking my muscles for trigger points. Then a colleague offered to give me a session so I could learn how she does it (and get some relief), and then she had me work on her trigger points. I actually bruised her butt, which she was okay with because she felt so much better.
If you didn’t know, a trigger point is a small knot in the muscle fibers that might even be microscopic. Sometimes a massage therapist — or you — can feel the knot. Experienced practitioners say when no knot is palpable, they can feel a change in muscle density.
The other way of finding them is to systematically press deeply into the muscle, sliding your fingers slowly along the skin, until you — or the client — identifies a tender spot. Then press into it while breathing deeply three times (sometimes the knot releases before then), and then rub the area to increase circulation and carry off toxins.
Now I add trigger point work on request to the Swedish and integrative massages I do. I don’t do sessions that are entirely deep tissue so far. Applying that much pressure is strenuous on my body, and my clients so far don’t want a whole hour of trigger point work.
I’ve ordered a small spiral book of images of muscles, trigger points, and referred pain areas that I can easily use at work in lieu of posters, since I work in multiple locations. It’s The Trail Guide to the Body — Trigger Points.
But back to me! I found dozens of trigger points in my sternocleidomastoid (the long muscle that pops out on the side of your neck when you turn your head) and scalenes (three shorter, entwined muscles on the side of the neck that attach to several cervical vertebrae, like guitar strings). The scalenes flex the neck to the same side.
Trigger points on these muscles produced referred pain at areas on my head, arms, hands, and between my shoulder blades. Finding and releasing these trigger points has made a world of difference. My body feels lighter, looser, freer, more flexible — and I’m already flexible.
I imagine that using the spine aligner regularly releases trigger points in the various layers of spinal muscles. My back is definitely less tender than when I first used the spine aligner. Use it in bed or on a sofa at first. Later you will be able to do it on the floor.
I have a hunch that if I could release all my trigger points, my body would feel like it did when I was 5 years old again. And that would be something I’d like to experience. The wisdom of age plus the energy of youth!
Trigger points do tend to come back but are not as painful, and sometimes they can require repeated work before they fully release. Every 2-3 days, I check those neck muscles and release any trigger points that are still tender. I’ll move onto my shoulder, arm, and upper back muscles next.
Whether you are a bodyworker or a recipient, if you are serious about moving away from muscle pain and toward more ease and lightness in your body, I recommend these tools for self-care.