Ischemic compression is a therapeutic technique in which pressure is applied to a trigger point in an effort to “turn it off” and relieve muscles from a painful spasm.  You may develop one if you have injured a muscle due to overexertion during exercise or by accidental injury. You may also develop trigger points with prolonged inactivity or through repetitive movement. Trigger points develop when a muscle is called upon to work beyond its normal limits.  When a muscle is overworked it is unable to drain its waste product called lactic acid.  Lactic acid is the reason why you feel the burn during strenuous activity.

Usually muscles are able to allow lactic acid to drain into the bloodstream so it can be excreted. Under intense circumstances, the muscle is so overworked that it cannot drain the lactic acid.  The muscle instead begins to deposit this waste product back into the muscle. This creates a trigger point. Trigger points often become painful and can cause radiating pain to other regions.  Many studies, such as this one, have proved the effectiveness of ischemic compression for controlling pain.

This technique consists of identifying the trigger point, usually a tight band or round knot of muscle and applying steady pressure to it until the muscle softens or releases. It usually takes anywhere for 30 seconds to several minutes before the patient feels the area release.  Follow up work is done by gently stretching the muscle or applying ice or heat to the affected area. Additional therapy may include exercise  and self care techniques to stretch and strengthen the muscles at the trigger point.

The following video illustrates an exercise to relieve mid back tightness through “ischemic compression”. If you are suffering from pain in your neck or back that seems to focus on a particular area of tightness, you should ask your practitioner if this technique would be beneficial for you.

A little history note:  Janet G. Travell, MD is the doctor who pioneered the research on trigger points.  She is also remembered as President John F Kennedy’s personal physician.  It is believed that her work in trigger points came about as a result of treating  JFK’s physical health issues.