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What is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?

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Updated June 07, 2008

Question: What is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?
Answer: Myofascial pain syndrome, a very common condition, is a collection of signs and symptoms in a particular area of the body that indicate muscle trauma. Untreated, this problem is a recurring cycle of spasm, which is thought to decrease blood flow, which, in turn, causes pain. The pain leads to more spasm, and the cycle continues.

Myofascial pain syndrome shows up as active trigger points. Active trigger points can be felt not only where they are located, but also as pain referred to other areas. For each muscle, a particular pattern is followed by the referred pain; in other words, pain that goes from a trigger point in a specific muscle to another place in the body will show up in the same place in every person who has trigger points in that muscle. Medical providers and massage therapists trained in this area can identify trigger points by their pain pattern.

With myofascial pain syndrome, muscles become tense and taut, and joint range of motion decreases.

Myofascial pan is often caused by long periods spent in poor postural alignment. Ideally, the fit of the bones is designed to keep body posture up and moving smoothly, but when that is not occurring, muscles take over the job. As an example, when you sit at your computer all day long and your upper body begins to slump forward, to raise your head to see, you use your trapezius muscle, located on the top of your shoulders. The trapezius muscle is now working at something it is not really supposed to do, and is working continuously. There is little time for rest and relaxation. Instead, the continual contraction causes microscopic injury to the muscle. The normal, self-protective response of an injured muscle is to seize up, or spasm. But in this situation, the extra input of tension into the trapezius only makes the situation worse. The constriction reduces nourishing blood flow to the area, which in turn, causes pain. Next, the pain signals the cycle to begin again. Unless this cycle is interrupted by treatment, it runs endlessly, intensifies with each iteration, and leads to disability. The pain-tension-decreased blood flow cycle causes the muscle to develop trigger points.

Sources:

Simons, D., MD, Travell, J. MD, Simons, L., PT. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Vol. 1 Upper Half of the Body. 2nd Edition. Williams & Wilkins A Waverly Company 1999. Baltimore.

Rachlin, E. Myofascial Pain and Fibromyalgia: Trigger Point Management. Mosby-Year Book. 1994. St. Louis.

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