The Art of Releasing Muscle Spasm

Helping muscles to relax is an art, for both therapist and client alike. There are so many different approaches; a very light, superficial massage will be of little use to help the release of a tight spot, but it’s also no use giving deep massage to a tender point if the client freezes completely in pain, refusing to breathe (and I do prefer my clients to breathe!).

Finding the happy medium is a tricky art. After more than 25 years as a practicing Chiropractor, it is an art that I know I will never master. However, with a combination of experience, sensitivity and good on-going communication between the therapist and client, it can be done.

In this article, I want to talk about the methods of how I massage to help you understand how treatment may be given. I also discuss Massage Therapy – Benefits and How it Works here. Please read my Planning Your Treatment tips if you have booked an appointment.

Releasing muscle spasm is a highly individual process and sometimes, the best way is to treat and find what works best. Understanding the case history beforehand helps. Clients may like to say if they bruise easily, and it is imperative that clients tell me when the massage becomes too sore. But mostly, I’m asked to just get into the muscles and work them hard! Some people don’t know what’s best and so I’m happy to lead by my experience and intuition.

The Joint Complex

Joints and muscles go hand in hand. We often talk about a joint complex, which is the joint and the muscles surrounding it. Joints and muscles both need to be considered – is it the muscle spasm that happens first, or the joint locking? Often, both the muscles and the joints need to be released for the surrounding muscles to settle.

Ways to Release Muscle Spasm

Deep Soft Tissue Massage

Deep soft tissue massage is the most common type of massage I employ, and is the one that clients ask for the most. This massage helps to release the core muscles and the tighter, more knotted spots. Tight or sensitive spots in muscles can be called knots or trigger spots and are result of muscle tissue that is in spasm.

In order to treat an injury or a tight spot in a muscle, it is essential to break down the scar tissue, releasing the lactic acid and toxins and properly improving blood flow. By working more deeply, the treatment can have a greater, longer-lasting improvement versus the results of a more superficial massage.

Deep massage can cause some tightness or temporary pain during and after, a reaction that can be delayed even for one or two days. These symptoms soon settle. The massage itself is done with slow movements and firm pressure focusing on, across or around the areas of tightness and pain.

Light Massage Around the Injury

Sometimes the very tight muscles are too painful to work on directly. In this case, helping to relax all the surrounding muscles is initially required. This process helps the primary or spasm muscles to relax before I can work on them, with more specific or directed muscle releasing techniques.

Sometimes tight spots are simply too tender to massage; even the lightest of touches can cause the client to flinch, or causes too much pain after treatment. By working all around the tender, painful area, the improved blood flow can often decrease sensitivity and by the end of the treatment I am able to work more directly on the tighter spots.

Speaking from experience, I usually find deep massage really helps me with muscle pain, but once or twice I have had massages that work on muscles that have been too tender and I was too sore afterwards (only for a day or so). A gentler treatment might have been better; again, it is better to tell your chiropractor or massage therapist if it’s too sore.

Trigger Point Massage

A trigger point is a tight point or knot in the muscle that can ‘trigger’ or refer pain somewhere else.

Common trigger spots I treat are:

  • At the base of the skull, which causes headaches
  • Muscles in the shoulder blades that radiate pain down the arm
  • In the pelvis and gluteal muscles, which cause pain in the leg (a sign I am happy to see because it often indicates the leg pain is not a more serious sciatica, and the pain will settle faster).

Often when I find a trigger spot, they give sharp, intense pain and I may need to work around or on it for a short while. After this it will usually release and quickly feel less intense. Wendy Bateman, an excellent massage therapist, says: “oh, I love it when I find a trigger spot and give it a good go, and it disappears… it’s great, like popping bubble wrap”.

I’m not sure I agree with the bubble wrap analogy, but it is amazing how a trigger spot can be so tender one moment and completely relaxed the next. Usually, since the muscle took a while to develop into a trigger spot, it will take a few sessions to break it down.

Point-Holding Massage

When a muscle spot is acutely sensitive, tender, or even chronically hard with fibrous tissue, it can be highly effective to simply ‘hold’ my fingers on the spot without moving them, just asking the client to relax, breathe and let go.

It’s incredibly common for me to be just resting my fingers on a sensitive spot with almost no pressure whatsoever, but the client finds it acutely painful. The time it then takes then to settle varies. Sometimes it settles quickly, and at other times a spot can be held for quite a long period before it finally gives in and begins to feel less painful. At this point, clients often ask if I have reduced the amount of pressure I am applying – by then I am using far more pressure than they realise!

Contract–Relax Muscle Releasing

Contract-relax stretching does exactly what it says on the tin. The muscle is put in a position where it feels like it’s stretching gently, then the patient is asked to contract the muscle gently for a few seconds before allowing the muscle to release on its own (or with a gentle relaxing stretch). It is commonly used to lengthen short muscles and improve range of movement and flexibility.

I incorporate this technique into the massage by asking the client to gently push against me to contract the muscle, and then during the gentle stretch or relax phase I use point-holding massage to release the muscle. It’s just so important that the client releases the whole body during the relax phase and especially not to hold their breath. As part of this, I bring a large element of my Alexander Technique training into this aspect of the work.

Gentle Movements to Relax and Allow Muscles to Unwind

It’s amazing to find that sometimes muscles release better when we are more active – in the right way! It is easy to get stuck into the idea that we need to lie down and relax, or we need someone to massage a muscle to help it release.

Neither of these is necessarily wrong but whilst both can help, it’s important to remember that self-help is easier than you think! I often hear that clients report their back pain feels much better after walking or relaxed swimming. I’ve also often heard clients say their back feels looser after a game of golf which actively helps their back loosen. Then again, I’ve heard the opposite, too; that they are sorer after the round. So what’s happening?

It depends on the approach to the exercise. Usually when clients enjoy the activity and are mentally calm, approaching the activity in a very relaxed fashion, the movement then helps amazingly well. They find their muscles simply let go on their own. On the other hand, if you’re tense, rushing, or thinking about a million and one other things, it won’t help. Really this is what Alexander Technique teaches us – relaxation in activity.


Resting Effectively to Allow Muscles to Release

I have written about resting effectively as it is not simply sitting slouched or lying crunched up on the sofa. Far from that – as I’ve just said above, it can be achieved through relaxed movement.

However, sometimes it’s important to stop and allow the muscles to let go. I do recommend lying down resting on your back with your knees flexed up in what is called “semi-supine” in the Alexander Technique, or simply lying in the recovery position if this is more comfortable. Don’t lie down for too long without moving, however, as no one sustained position is good for us.

Static Muscle Stretching

Stretching muscles can sometimes be very helpful. This is done by simply holding the muscle in the stretched position for a 20-30 seconds. Learning how to effectively stretch is very important. I feel it is best done by incorporating breathing and good body awareness; if you stretch too hard it can be too painful and it’s all too easy to tense your body, which can cause the muscles to have the opposite reaction and spasm afterwards, which is completely unhelpful. Yoga has been making a recent resurgence and I do think for some of us it can be very favourable.

The Dangers of Over-Stretching Muscles

Here, I offer a big word of caution as I’m seeing more and more clients who’ve developed unconscious habits of repeatedly stretching muscles. The dangers of over-stretching cannot be overstated. It is huge problem, so please be careful. Set aside time to stretch, and then do NOT do it other times; it only ends up causing the muscles to tighten and strain further, because of the never-ending stretching habits we fall into. Things that can be helpful in small does can be very harmful in large doses!

People often have a habit pattern of stretching the neck, shrugging the shoulders or other stretches which they do too often. This very issue came up with a client of mine who had a knee problem. He had been shown to stretch it and then was deliberately doing it all day long and it made the knee pain worse. Fortunately, in his case, he was fully aware he was doing it, so it was easier to stop it. Within a couple of treatments his pain had settled, which was doubly important as he was one of my tennis partners!

If you are suffering with muscle spasm, why not call or pop into the clinic for a treatment? Find our contact information below or here.