The Science Behind Pressure Points and Neck Pain

Acupuncture is a holistic treatment that focuses on pressure points and many people turn to it for relieving neck pain. It is also a good option for people with pain all over the body. Acupuncture works by addressing pressure points that can calm neck pain. While muscle tension is often the cause of neck pain, pressure points can bring relief when massage and other treatments do not work. 

How Does Neck Pain Manifest Itself?

Neck pain can show itself as stiffness, spasms, and knots. Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories can bring some relief. Because many people prefer to not use medication they turn to treatments that rely on stimulating pressure points through massage. Visiting a chiropractor helps get rid of neck pain too. 

Acupressure and Acupuncture

While massage can get into pressure points, they are most closely associated with acupressure and acupuncture. There are several studies looking into the effectiveness of both of these traditional treatments. The studies are looking at the 15 acupoints most commonly used to treat neck pain. Researchers are looking at how therapists use the pressure points with heat, pain, and electrical resistance.

Trigger Points and Muscle Spasms

Another treatment for neck pain focuses on trigger points. These are slightly different from pressure points, as trigger points are the areas of the body where muscles are knotted. Trigger points are akin to the areas of the body where muscle spasms take place. To try to loosen the knots, massage therapists and chiropractors press into the points where the knots exist.  

Trigger points tighten through repetitive use which could come from lifting weights, doing handstands, or typing on a computer, for example. Eventually, the body tightens up when it needs a break from repetitive use. One way to give the body some relief is to press on these points, as the pressure can help muscles relax. If the muscles are especially tight, it could take several trigger point massage sessions. 

photo credit : Karolina Grabowska

Self Massage for Trigger Points

If you can reach your own trigger points, you can do your own massage. And if you cannot reach them, you can use foam rollers or massage balls to help reduce the tightness. Using your fingers, press into the trigger points. Repeat several times per day. If you cannot reach, find a tennis ball. While laying on the ground or sitting up against a firm chair, put the ball against the trigger point and lean into the ball. You should feel the trigger point, as it might start talking to you in the form of discomfort. 

Be sure to only push into the trigger point at an intensity that you can tolerate. You should repeat this process at least three times per day. Eventually, the trigger point will release. Push as hard as you can stand, because the pressure will actually help the trigger point relax. Do not push to the point of pain, as that is not the point of this exercise. To help the trigger points release, use deep inhales and full exhales.

Strangely, trigger points tend to happen in the same places in people’s backs. The points show an increase in contraction with a decrease in circulation so it takes longer for the points to relax and heal. Spasms can increase nerve sensitivity, which creates the ache and can radiate into the neck and limbs. 

photo credit : Karolina Grabowska

Common Locations for Trigger Points for Neck Pain

Trigger points that affect the neck are often in the upper back, where the deltoid meets the trapezius. They also happen in the neck where the levator scapulae and erector spinae meet. Another common spot for trigger points is in the upper trapezius. Many people also find trigger points in the fascia around the rhomboid. Often, when pressing into the trigger points, you will feel pressure radiating up into the neck. 

Researchers are still investigating the science behind trigger point therapy. They still question how nodules in the muscles develop into pain. Some studies are looking at how dry needling, which is akin to acupuncture, works on trigger points. Research has found that using a foam roller decreases stiffness and improves vascular function. The key seems to be using the foam roller regularly, especially if you do activities that lead to pain from overuse. 

Trigger point therapy is often called self-myofascial release as the pressure on the knots releases the muscles and the fascia around them. Many of the studies that looked at self-myofascial release did not offer much beyond anecdotal answers. More research needs to be done to find further proof and rationale that the treatment actually gets rid of knots and pain.

So, if it feels good to use foam rollers or tennis balls to get relief, keep doing it. 


Dr. Brent Wells founded Better Health Chiropractic in Alaska in 1998. He is currently leading 10,000 Alaskans to more active and pain-free lifestyles without drugs or invasive surgeries. He brings a progressive and highly innovative approach to chiropractic care in Anchorage. Dr. Wells continues to further his education with ongoing studies in spine conditions, neurology, physical rehabilitation, biomechanics, occupational ergonomics, whiplash, and brain injury traumatology. He is also a member of the American Chiropractic Association and the American Academy of Spine Physicians.

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