Author: Caitlin Geng
Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic condition that affects the musculoskeletal system, including the bones, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and connective tissue. The muscular and skeletal systems work together to move and support the body.
Musculoskeletal pain affects up to 80% of the population. Myofascial pain syndrome is one of the most common forms of chronic musculoskeletal pain, and 30–85% of people with musculoskeletal pain experience this condition.
Myofascial pain syndrome typically causes pain and tenderness in a specific area, such as the neck and one shoulder.
The pain generally links to trigger points in the muscles, which radiate pain to the affected area when something applies pressure. However, pain may occur spontaneously with no pressure and may appear in areas of the body that seem unrelated to the trigger points.
Common symptoms of myofascial pain syndrome are localized pain in the muscles and trigger points in the muscles that activate pain.
Less common symptoms may include:
- muscle stiffness
- difficulty sleeping
- affected posture, such as rounded shoulders or hunching
Experts do not fully understand the causes of myofascial pain syndrome, but various factors can contribute to the condition. These include:
- Ergonomic factors: One example is abnormal posture, which might be due to working at a desk all day. Another is mechanics, which may involve repetitive overhead activity, such as painting a ceiling.
- Traumatic events: An event such as a car accident or sports injury may cause this condition.
- Systemic factors and diseases: Deficiency in certain minerals or vitamins, such as iron or vitamin D, may increase a person’s risk of myofascial pain syndrome. Some health conditions, such as hypothyroidism, may also be risk factors.
- Structural factors: Conditions that affect the structure of the musculoskeletal system may lead to myofascial pain syndrome. Examples include:
Treatments for myofascial pain syndrome usually focus on the trigger points. The options can include:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants
- red light therapy, also known as low-level light therapy or cold therapy, in which a doctor or technician exposes the person’s trigger points to near-infrared light
- electrical stimulation, in which a doctor or technician places electrodes onto the affected muscle to cause rapid contractions
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, in which a technician or doctor attaches a small device to the painful area through pads that sit on the skin, sending low voltage electrical signals
- physical therapy, which will likely involve stretching exercises and activities to modify posture
- therapeutic ultrasound, which uses sound waves to penetrate soft tissues
- dry needling, in which a practitioner inserts thin needles into and around the trigger point and sometimes also injects a steroid or numbing agent
- acupuncture, which involves the insertion of very thin needles into different locations on the body at various depths
- Kinesio taping to support muscles and joints
There is scientific evidence to support the use of many of these treatments. For instance, 2022 research has shown that red light therapy can significantly reduce pain for people with myofascial pain syndrome. Slightly older research found that TENS may offer short-term relief from pain for these individuals.
There is no specific test to diagnose myofascial pain syndrome. A doctor will examine a person and aim to eliminate other conditions that present similarly such as fibromyalgia or cubital tunnel syndrome.
An examination may include:
- Questions about the pain, such as:
- potential risk factors, such as repetitive movements or recent injuries
- where the pain occurs
- how often the person experiences the pain
- when they experience the pain
- A physical exam: A doctor will apply gentle pressure to feel for tight bands of muscle that may cause twitches or trigger pain.
- A visual exam: The doctor will look for postural abnormalities, such as hunching of the shoulders or the head position being far forward and misaligned with the spine.
- Diagnostic and imaging tests: X-rays and ultrasound scans can rule out other conditions.
As experts do not fully understand what causes myofascial pain syndrome, a person may be unable to avoid the condition. However, reducing potential risk factors associated with the condition, where possible, could help prevent it.
A person can take steps to counter certain risk factors, such as improper posture, repetitive motions, and underlying health conditions. These steps include:
- exercising regularly to strengthen the muscles and improve range of motion and flexibility
- stretching frequently throughout the day
- changing positions regularly throughout the day to avoid the overuse of a particular muscle group
- trying to improve the posture with exercises, stretches, or posture devices and aids
- speaking with a doctor to diagnose and treat underlying conditions that may contribute to myofascial pain, such as:
Below, we answer some common questions about myofascial pain syndrome.
Can doctors cure myofascial pain syndrome?
Doctors cannot cure myofascial pain syndrome. Although the symptoms of the acute form of the condition may spontaneously disappear or fully recede following treatment, the chronic form may produce symptoms over long durations.
One study found that the average duration of symptoms was 63 months. The symptoms may also become more difficult to treat if a person does not address any underlying causes.
However, by managing the condition through treatment, a person can minimize the symptoms.
How do you release myofascial pain?
A person can see a physical therapist for myofascial pain release therapy. This type of therapy involves gentle manipulation and massage of the trigger points and stretching. A person may be able to perform this therapy at home, using foam rollers and other tools. More research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of this therapy, but researchers believe that it shows promise.
What muscles does myofascial pain syndrome affect?
Myofascial pain syndrome can cause multiple areas of musculoskeletal pain. However, the affected sites are usually in the back, shoulders, and neck.
Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic musculoskeletal condition. Experts do not fully understand what causes it, but factors such as repetitive movement or injury can contribute to the condition.
In myofascial pain syndrome, trigger points radiate pain to other muscles. This pain tends to occur when trigger points are under pressure, but it can happen spontaneously.
There is no cure for the chronic condition, but it is possible to manage it with treatments. The options may include medications, stretches and exercises, electrical stimulation, red light therapy, dry needling, and acupuncture.