Ask a Trainer: How Can I Fix My Achy Muscles Quickly?
From lower-back pain to tight shoulders, here are a few easy at-home tricks to help fight these pesky pains - no anti-inflammatories, massage appointments, or expensive chiropractor visits required.
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I don’t know about you, but when my lower back hurts or my neck gets tight, not only does it cramp my style in training, but it also seriously interferes with everything outside of it. And I’m not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults report some instance of acute lower-back pain lasting one day or more in the last three months.
While it’s tempting to pop a couple of pain relievers to get through the day, covering up the pain doesn’t really fix this common muscle ache. Much better solutions include massage, acupuncture or an adjustment with a chiropractor.
The problem is, sometimes getting in to see a specialist for one of these therapies could take days or even weeks. If you’re experiencing acute pain and you want to fix common muscle aches sooner rather than later, here are four at-home ways you help relieve the pain.
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1. Trigger Point Therapy
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t go anywhere without my lacrosse ball (and that includes on vacation). That’s because this hard rubber ball is the perfect size and density for trigger point therapy.
Trigger points are painful, tense areas of the muscles that can be found anywhere on the body. They are also one of the most common causes for chronic musculoskeletal pain. When you get a shoulder or neck rub and you feel a tight “knot” of muscle, that’s usually a trigger point.
Massage is one way to release the trigger point, but you also can achieve the same effect using a lacrosse ball. It’s similar to the self-myofascial release technique done with a foam roller, and it is one of my favorite ways to fix common muscle aches.
To relieve tension in your neck and shoulders, lie on your back and place the lacrosse ball behind your upper trap, the triangular area from your neck to your shoulder blade to your shoulder. Make sure the ball is not pressing directly on a bone. You’ll know it’s in the right place if you can feel it “working” on a knot of muscle. Extend your arm to the side or overhead to better target the trigger point. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, or until you feel the muscle release. Repeat on the other side.
For fixing common muscle aches in the lower back, move the ball down to the back of your hip in the area just to the side of your tailbone above one glute. Bend that leg up and let your knee fall to the side. Keep your other leg straight on the floor. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, or until you feel the muscle release. Repeat on the other side.
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2. Hot and Cold Therapy
You might be familiar with the RICE acronym for treating injuries: rest, ice, compression and elevation. While this does relieve the pain of acute injuries like an ankle sprain, you might actually be working against your body’s natural mechanisms if you use it to fix common muscle aches.
As Joelle Cavagnaro, MS, CEO of Level TEN and co-owner of Fit Coach Pro, explains, using cold to treat these pains might be doing the opposite of what your body intended.
“Contrary to popular belief, cold therapy like ice baths is not particularly great for muscle recovery,” Cavagnaro says. “We have to remember that ice, while it may provide temporary relief, reduces inflammation — which in turn can delay healing and recovery. Acute inflammation is our body’s way of healing.”
While you can absolutely ice a twisted ankle or other acute injury to provide that temporary relief Cavagnaro mentions, make sure it’s only for brief periods. If the pain is more chronic, such as neck or back pain, try using heat instead.
“The inflammatory response is crucial for wound healing, recovery and repair,” Cavagnaro says. “So, as you can imagine, ‘icing’ something to control swelling and inflammation is the exact opposite of what we’d want to do for recovery.”
Superficial heat in the form of a heating pad or warm compress can help increase blood flow to the affected muscle, giving it a better chance to heal and recover, which in turn provides you with lasting relief.
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3. Epsom Salt Bath
For a more ancient way to fix common muscle aches, look no further than your bathtub. Epsom salt baths have been used for hundreds of years as a treatment for everything from arthritis to insomnia, and they are still a commonly used treatment for muscle aches to this day. When dissolved in water, Epsom salts break down into magnesium and sulfate, which your body then absorbs through the skin. Both these substances are thought to improve detoxification in the body, and magnesium in particular is important for relaxation.
Fill a tub with hot water and dissolve 1 to 2 cups of Epsom salt. Soak the affected muscle group in the water for at least 15 minutes, although you can soak for longer. Magnesium is also thought to help boost melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Taking an Epsom salt bath before bed is therefore an excellent way to help your body relax and prepare for sleep, which is itself an underused way to fix common muscle aches and recover.
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4. Deep Stretching
It’s no secret that stretching can relieve sore muscles and improve chronic tightness. The main problem is most of us do not hold a stretch long enough for this relaxation to occur. Your body has built-in mechanisms to prevent you from tearing your muscles due to excess tension or overstretching. Depending on the type of stimuli, your muscles will either tighten to prevent injury or relax.
When you only stretch for brief periods or “bounce” quickly in your stretching, your muscles sense the quick change in tension and can tighten up more as a response. The solution to fix common muscle aches is prolonged, deep stretching lasting longer than 30 seconds and preferably several minutes or more. This technique is even more effective when combined with deep breathing, which is why yoga is such an effective recovery modality.
The key to deep stretching is to make sure you are in a comfortable position you can hold for a longer period. For example, instead of standing on one leg and pulling your foot up to your glute to stretch your quad, try lying on your stomach in the same position. This way, you don’t have to maintain your balance while you allow the muscle to relax. For your chest and shoulders, stand in a doorway and place both hands on the frame. Step through with one foot, keeping your hands on the frame to stretch your chest. For a tight lower back, perform a standing forward bend, resting your hands on a yoga block or stack of books if you can’t reach the floor.
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Heather Eastman is an NSCA and NASM certified personal trainer, Level 1 CrossFit coach and ACE group exercise instructor with more than 15 years of training and teaching experience. She trains at Verdant CrossFit in Boise, Idaho.