How to Treat Neck Trigger Points for Pain Relief

trigger point

If you have neck pain and stiffness which isn’t going away, it’s highly likely you have neck trigger points. These are a common cause of pain that’s often missed.

How common? Around 50% of people will have an episode of significant neck pain during their lifetime, and it can really affect your quality of life.

Treating neck pain effectively means figuring out exactly what the cause is. This is sometimes complex, as the neck has a number of important structures, all of which can cause pain. Neck pain can be caused by a problem in the discs or joints – especially facet joints. Then there’s the muscle, tendons, and ligaments of the neck. Finally, in the muscles, you can get pain caused by active trigger points. Here are the main symptoms of active trigger points in the neck:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Tension headaches and pain behind the eyes
  • Pain going down into the chest
  • Shooting pains down the arm

On this page, we’re going to go through each of these symptoms and look at the most likely trigger points that can cause them.

However, it’s also important to note that trigger points are just one possible cause of neck pain. Before you go looking for triggers you need to rule out other causes like disc injuries in the neck, tumors, and in the case of chest pain, any heart trouble.

That said, trigger points may be secondary causes of pain. This means they can be set off by other problems like facet joints or disc pain. Active neck trigger points then become part of the general neck pain complex. And even after the other problems have settled, these active triggers can continue to cause pain. So it’s well worth going on a search to see if you can find and switch off active trigger points in your neck.

How to Find Neck Trigger Points

The neck is a complex and mobile structure. Some of the neck muscles connect to the shoulder blade, the skull, the ribs, and the neck vertebrae. If you have pain in your neck, you may need to look for triggers in the neck muscles, but also in the shoulder and upper back muscles, as they’re all connected and work together to hold your head up

Here are the main neck muscles which get trigger points:

  • Scalenes
  • Upper Trapezius
  • Suboccipitals
  • Levator Scapulae
  • Sternocleidomastoid

There are other muscles which refer pain into the neck, and we recommend you check the free trigger charts at www.TriggerPointCharts.com to get a full picture.

When you search for trigger points in your neck, you need to go very carefully and gently, especially in the sides and front of your neck. This is because there are several large nerves, veins and arteries running up your neck, and as you search for the triggers, you need to be careful not to compress them.

Here’s a quick explanation of how to find triggers:

How to Find a Trigger Point

First, with your fingers, gently run your fingers back and forth across the muscle fibers. You’re looking for a tight band of muscle that feels almost like a guitar string. You’ll feel it’s much tighter than the muscle fibers around it.

Once you feel it, run your finger up and down the tight band until you come to a small thickening or sore spot. This is the trigger point. When you press on this spot, you’ll feel pain right where it is. Depending on the type trigger, you’ll feel pain somewhere else as well. Pressing on it will produce pain in the referral pattern for that particular trigger point. 

Sometimes the trigger point is quite far away from where you feel the pain. For example, scalene trigger points can cause pain shooting down your arm. Trapezius and suboccipital triggers can cause chronic tension headaches. That’s why trigger charts are so useful: they help you find trigger points that cause pain far away from where they’re actually located.

Once you’ve found the trigger point that’s causing your pain, you can use several different methods to treat it.

How to Treat Neck Trigger Points

There are several different methods for treating neck trigger points. It is possible to get dry needling for neck triggers, but only in the back of the neck, and only by a qualified practitioner. There’s a lot of very important nerves, muscles and joints in the neck, so anyone putting needles in needs to really know that they’re doing.

The second method can be used to treat yourself. It’s called ischemic pressure, and it can be done very gently, safely and effectively. The first thing you need to understand when doing ischemic pressure for neck pain is what is a trigger point. Once you know a trigger point is a small protective muscle spasm that got stuck on red alert, then treating it becomes a matter of interrupting the trigger.

Ischemic pressure does this by restricting the blood flow for a minute or two. This gives the muscle a chance to reset and release the spasm caused by the active trigger point.

What you do is make sure you’re accurately right on the trigger point. Then you very gently press on it, keeping below the pain threshold at all times. Gradually increase the pressure over 90-120 seconds. If at any time you feel pain, just reduce pressure and wait. Then slowly increase pressure again.

By the end of 90-120 seconds, you should be able to comfortably press much harder than at the beginning. The muscle fibres should feel relaxed and supple under your fingers, and the small thickening where the trigger point was should have melted away.

Once you’ve turned off the trigger point, it’s time to stretch out your sore neck muscles for a much longer lasting treatment. This is also how you reset the muscle length and increase the range of movement for your neck.

You can also check this article self-treatment for neck trigger points.