Body self-care tools: the spine aligner and a workbook on trigger points


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.

spine aligner

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.

My feel-good hack using yoga, spine aligner, breathing, TRE, and more yoga

I’m sharing a little feel-good hack I discovered today.

I used to hang upside down by my knees daily to lengthen my back and let gravity work the other direction. It’s a great way to put space between the vertebrae, lengthen the back muscles, and give the spinal nerves more space.

Well, I don’t have a way to hang in my trailer (until I get a yoga swing and hang it outside from a tree, maybe in the spring).

I’ve been experiencing some little kinks in my back, the kind of thing a chiropractor could easily adjust, but I don’t see mine until tomorrow.

Here’s what I did to release the kinks and energize myself for the day:

  1. To wake up and limber up, I did one very deep, very slow, very mindful round of surya namaskar/sun salutation, dropping deep into lunge and integrating a heart-opening variation of utthita parsvakonasana/extended side angle pose, vir 1/warrior 1, and later adho mukha svanasana/downdog with variations into the sequence. This is my true yoga love, sun salutation with infinite variations, my own custom every-day-is-different vinyasa tailored for my needs.
  2. I laid down on my yoga mat, picked up the spine aligner/ma roller (photo below), and placed the two middle knobs between two vertebrae between my shoulder blades, mid-way up. I breathed 10 breaths, then rolled it down one vertebrae. Repeated this all the way down to L5/sacrum. (If you are new to using this tool, start using it on a bed; otherwise, the discomfort will stop you.) It 
  3. Removed the spine aligner, placed my soles on the floor, and let my legs shake shake shake until all the tension was released, like in the Trauma Releasing Exercises. I hadn’t planned to do that. It just came up that I needed to release.
  4. I returned to yoga and did a reclining spinal twist with knees together that I learned from Eleanor Harris, my long-time yoga teacher. Sorry, not sure of the Sanskrit.

My back feels much better, and my energy is flowing well. This relaxation business is seriously fun and creative!

Body care tools make great gifts!

When you are considering gifts to give during the holiday season (or for birthdays or special occasions year-round), here are some recommendations from a professional bodyworker. All of these relax, relieve stress, release tension, and enhance well-being. Who doesn’t want that?

First of all, please consider giving your loved ones gift certificates for massage. There are many modalities available ranging from Swedish to Ashiatsu to craniosacral to hot stones and more. This is a great way to show love — by surprising your loved one with a health-giving, rejuvenating, relaxing massage.

Your loved one will love you for it, and you’ll enjoy their relaxed, post-massage company even more!

Plus, supporting a private practitioner keeps the money in the local economy, so you’re being generous twice.

Here are my recommendations for tools that bring relief between massages:

  • Therapeutica Sleeping PillowThe Therapeutica Sleeping Pillow helps side sleepers keep their heads aligned with their spines while they sleep and encourages healthy back sleeping by providing nice curves for neck and head alignment. It is designed to reduce snoring and to relieve TMJ pain. Comes in five sizes based on shoulder width.
  • Check out the smaller Therapeutica Travel Pillow if your loved one travels a lot.
  • The Sacrowedgy is designed to be placed under the sacrum while you are lying on your back. It can relieve sciatica, back pain, piriformis syndrome, and more. Massage therapists and bodyworkers know that the keys to activating the parasympathetic nervous system (opposite of fight or flight) lie in pressing nerves at the occiput and/or the sacrum. This device cradles the sacrum similar to placing a hand under it, the way we often hold infants. Very calming and relaxing! Sized to fit male and female sacrums. Makes a nice stocking stuffer.
  • Place a Still Point Inducer under the occiput when you are lying on your back. Just as the Sacrowedgy induces relaxation via cradling the sacrum, the Still Point Inducer calms by cradling the occiput. A “still point” is a pause in the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid that results in better functioning of the central nervous system. Inducing a still point can relieve headaches and eye strain, lower blood pressure, and enhance the immune system. Craniosacral therapists induce the still point manually. You can do it yourself at home with one of these.
  • neckpillowA flaxseed pillow shaped to fit your neck and shoulders can be heated or chilled as needed for stiffness and pain. Better yet, get two of these! Freeze one and microwave the other, and then alternate heat and cold on your neck and shoulders for some wonderful circulatory and metabolic stimulation. Comes unscented — add your own fragrance if desired. Lavender is always relaxing.
  • TPWBThis item might inspire a New Year’s resolution! The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies shows where to find trigger points  and describes how to release them in layman’s language. (Third edition is recommended.) If regular deep tissue massage is too expensive and you and your partner or friend suffer from trigger point pain and limited range of movement, this book is a fantastic resource. You’ll also need an inexpensive tool, such as a knobble or maybe a back buddy. If you and your partner or friend are able to spend time weekly helping to find and release each other’s trigger points, you’ll both feel so much better by the same time next year!
  • spine alignerThe wooden Spine Aligner does just that. You lie on it, on a bed or cushioned surface at first, then on the floor when your body has adjusted. Rest the two central knobs between two vertebrae starting between your shoulder blades. Lie back on it for 10 breaths, then roll it down between the next pair of vertebrae, take 10 breaths, and so on, all the way down to L5-sacrum. The Spine Aligner relieves kinks and misalignments in the back, like you get when you sleep in a strange position or on a strange bed and wake up with a spasm-y, crick-y back. You can even put a knobby end under a glute for a nice tension-relieving stretch that definitely works some pressure points. You can roll the corrugated parts with the soles of your feet for a nice foot massage.

Some body care gifts you can make at home without spending a lot of money:

  • Two tennis balls tied in a tube sock. If your loved one’s car does not have built-in lumbar support, and he/she spends much time driving, you can easily make this simple gift. Put two tennis balls into a man’s tube sock. Tie a knot at the open end to keep the balls from coming out. They’ll place the sock behind their low back while driving, with a ball on either side of the spine. They can press into them, giving the low back a nice little massage.  Good for between the shoulder blades, too. This is  great on long car trips and to relieve the stress of driving in rush-hour traffic!
  • Scented bath salts. Buy Epsom salt in bulk at the grocery store, pharmacy, Costco, or online. Measure two cups of Epsom salt into a 16-oz. glass container. Add an essential oil such as lavender, chamomile, orange, sandalwood, rose, or peppermint for different effects. Stick an attractive label on the jar identifying the scent and include instructions to dissolve in a hot bath and soak for at least 12 minutes.
  • Make your own gift certificates for foot, hand, or scalp massage, or a back or shoulder rub. No training is needed, and 15-30 minutes keeps it at a good length to be effective but not tiring for you. Ask the recipient to tell you what they especially enjoy, and deliver that.

Taking care of your body, and helping your loved ones take care of theirs, is the essence of healthy living. Body care gifts create good will and make the world a better place, because people who feel great do great things!