August 10, 2011
This post is long overdue, but better late than never.
A quick rundown of the history:
- Headaches occurred during benchpress and chinups.
- Tried eliminating some things from diet with no relief.
- Doctor friend suggested I may have a herniated disk and recommended I see a neurologist.
- Neurologist said my spine/nerves are totally fine and hypothesized “vascular headaches,” recommending a brain scan.
That brain scan was prescribed two months ago and I never got it.
After a few weeks off from training, I eased back in with some easy bar work, and didn’t see any problems, but I was tentative. Around this time, my mom gave me The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook and I flipped right to the chapter on headaches and neck pain.
A brief explanation of trigger points:
In layman’s terms, a trigger point is a muscle knot. They vary in size and shape (I’ve found balls the size of large marbles and rods the size of pencil lead), and can cause pain locally or in seemingly random areas (referred pain).
The Workbook is laid out very neatly, with handy diagrams of common locations of trigger points and their referred pain pattern(s) accompanied by in-depth textual descriptions and treatment recommendations.
One of the common trigger points in the trapezius had symptoms strikingly similar to mine. They described throbbing pain at the top of the neck/base of the skull and claimed that this referred pain pattern was often misdiagnosed as herniated disks or vascular headaches. Eerie.
This was especially striking because (as can be read in part 2 of the series linked above) I had experienced alleviation of pain upon application of pressure to an area between my spine and shoulder blade – right where they suggested a trigger point may be hiding.
I went searching, and sure enough, I found a dense grouping in my trapezius about the size and shape of a large marble. When I pushed on it with even a small amount of pressure, it felt like I had the wind knocked out of me and brought on a slight tingle right where I felt the headaches.
The author recommended massage with penetrating pressure in one direction across the trigger point 10-12 times per session for up to 6 sessions per day.
I got to work with a small rubber ball up against a wall at home. As I leaned into the ball on the medial side of the trigger point, it got hard to breath and my neck felt like pins and needles. I slowly slid my body and the ball would pop to the lateral side of the trigger point with a noticeable pluck felt from my butt to my neck. As soon as the pressure was off to move back to the start position for the next rep, all pain and tingling would temporarily subside.
For the first four sessions, I noticed no improvement. Then on the fifth session, the ball seemed to be moving the trigger point a bit further laterally before each click over to the lateral side of the knot. On the tenth rep, there was never a click over to the lateral side – the ball rolled smoothly for inches and the trigger point was completely gone. I haven’t had a headache since (through some very demanding workouts).
Boy am I glad I didn’t shell out $3k+ for a brain scan.
As is covered in some detail in The Workbook, these trigger points can develop from prolonged periods of high strain of the muscle fibers in the area. This is why hard movements like deadlifts and sprints weren’t causing headaches; these movements weren’t loading my traps. When I jumped on the bar for a set of chin-ups however, I was keeping my traps loaded throughout each set.
Now that I’m back to working out at full capacity (and much higher volume than before), I notice some tightness in that area of my traps every few days (especially on the right side), but the tightness can be released with a lacrosse ball and a wall more easily each time – I’m seeing improvement!
My new-found interest in trigger points and myofascial release has led to The Mobility Wod, with which I’m combatting future injury and increasing my mobility every day (I recently touched my toes for the first time in a decade).