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Muscle Knots in the Back, Shoulders, and Neck: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

11/05/2019
By Corey Lewis, CPT, CSCS

I Feel Your Pain

I work out a lot, and a month doesn’t go by without some kind of discomfort or pain. Sometimes it’s a muscle knot in that area where my back, shoulders, and neck meet. I love working out, but when I do get a muscle knot it gets in the way of my enjoyment and reduces the good I get from my fitness training.

Posture exercises done on a regular basis and other preventative measures can help minimize muscle knots.  But when they do occur, they should be taken seriously.

Muscle Aches: Minor or Serious?

Everyone who goes to the gym understands: you’re going at it on free weights or on a machine or indulging is some good cardio, and then suddenly you feel a sharp pain as a knot forms seemingly instantly. Your muscle feels like it is literally bunching up into a tight ball. It can be so painful you stop moving instantly, and maybe drop whatever you are holding. 

There are two kinds of muscle knots: active and latent. The active knots feel the worst because they are painful without being touched, and they manifest like the sharp pain I mentioned above. With latent knots, the pain lurks under the surface, waiting to be touched before letting you know there’s a problem. Your medical doctor might refer to knots as myofascial trigger points, and while some knots are just a minor inconvenience, they can also be an indicator of a serious problem. 

When I have a muscle knot or cramp up, the first thing I do is reach for my massage ball. I don’t know what I would do without a good massage ball, because it helps keep my fitness regimen on track, feels great, and is an inexpensive alternative to frequent massage therapy sessions. 

When I feel the first signs of a cramp or a knot starting, or when I get a charley horse unexpectedly, I immediately stop what I’m doing and grab my massage ball and go to work. It often stops the pain and prevents the cramp from getting worse. The added benefit: I get a mini massage, and the effects linger throughout the day and remind me how important it is to focus on self-care and preventative maintenance.

Muscle Knots in the Neck Should Not Be Ignored

Any time your neck is not comfortable it can affect your posture, and bad posture can lead to serious injury. But it’s not just your neck that’s important. Muscle knots in the shoulders or back can also impact your posture and lead directly to knots, cramps, or more serious injuries to your neck. Everything in your body is connected, and if you ignore small problems, they can create discomfort that discourages you from exercising. They can even lead to serious injuries, especially if strength training is a part of your program. 

Exercise is important, and proper recovery is essential to making sure you can meet your exercise goals. When you’re done with your exercise routine, you should take some time to cool down, relax, and ensure your muscles will be ready to go again as soon as possible. 

Fix Muscle Aches and Protect Muscle Tissue 

Once you have muscle knots, it’s going to take time to fix them. Adequate rest is important. If you can stop doing the activity that caused the knot in the first place, then take a break. Alternating hot and cold therapy will help the muscles return to their proper shape and position. A cold pack and heating pad are good for this, but saunas and hot baths can help, too, especially if you alternate with a cool dip or a cold shower. 

In addition to posture exercises, there are a lot of little things you can do to help prevent muscle knots. One of the easiest fixes is to drink a glass of water. Proper hydration won’t fix a knot that has already formed, but if you get on top of your hydration, you will reduce the number of knots you get. 

Nutrition is also important. If your diet is poor in potassium, magnesium, and calcium, then you will be more likely to get cramps and knots. By simply adding in a few healthy snacks into your rotation, you can get enough of these vital minerals, and start a trend of better overall eating. 

Meditation and adequate sleep will also help. Excess stress is a risk factor for cramps and knots. If you get enough sleep and spend some time meditating each week, you can help stop cramping before it starts. 

If you have a sedentary job or spend a lot of time on a computer, take regular breaks and do stretching exercises. Not only will this help reduce cramping and knots, but it will also help with eye strain and possibly protect against serious conditions like carpal tunnel. 

Massage therapy is another great way to avoid cramping. It will help you relax in general as well. 

You Can Reduce Workout Related Knots and Cramps

Your neck, shoulders, and back are vulnerable to knots and cramping, but if you take proper precautions you can keep occurrences to a minimum and help ensure they are minor annoyances instead of serious injuries. 

Staying hydrated, warming up, cooling down, and getting the occasional massage can make a big difference—not just in the amount of cramping you experience, but also in your overall enjoyment of exercise. Some people find exercise a chore, but if you do it right it can become one of the highlights of your week, and a special treat after a long day at work. 

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