As a professional massage therapist, I was often (and still am) asked what can be done at home to relieve pain, especially muscle-related pain. This is a great question, as it shows willingness to participate in alleviating or at least reducing one’s own pain rather than relying solely on drugs to do the job. It’s also a good idea to get out of what I call the “pain pathway” – the neural pathway that has formed, that makes your pain too easy to signal. You don’t want your body to get stuck in this pathway, so anything that provides a detour, even temporarily, will prevent a pain pathway from becoming too established, and persistent effort may get rid of even a long-standing pain pathway.
There are a few DIY treatments I recommend, and you can try them out and see which one(s) are most helpful. This may be different for each person as well as for each situation.
First off, if the pain is from an acute injury (i.e. it happened quite recently and the site is still swollen), you will want to do the recommended R.I.C.E. treatment (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Be especially careful not to overdo compression. And, if the pain and swelling haven’t started to improve after 48 hours, you should probably see your doctor.
When the acute phase is over, if you have residual pain, long-standing or chronic pain, you may want to try some techniques at home to give yourself some relief.
Trigger Point Therapy
You can start by trying some trigger point therapy. A trigger point is another name for a muscle knot. The trigger point itself is usually painful when touched, but often is not noticed otherwise. This knot of tightly bound up muscle fibers is not letting anything pass through – it basically becomes a little ball of metabolic junk. This is why the trigger point itself is tender. It can refer or “trigger” pain elsewhere, thus its name. Nerves don’t like to be bothered, so when a knot of tissue makes a muscle taut, any associated nerve can get annoyed and send pain anywhere along that nerve’s pathway. Some trigger points even refer pain to an area of the body which seems totally unrelated.
To get an idea of where trigger points may be located, do a search online for a trigger point chart or trigger points for “shoulder” pain (inserting your pain area), or get an app that shows the area of pain and correlated trigger points. You might find this chart or this trigger point finder helpful.
Once you have a good idea of where to start looking for your trigger point(s), just start “digging around” – push on the tissue in the area until you find a tender spot. Most people will say, “Oh! I didn’t know that was sore there!” Sometimes when you push on an active trigger point, you will also feel the pain in the referred area, but not always.
When you’ve identified the trigger point, there are a couple ways to treat it. Some people like to just go after it, and for these folks, I recommend putting pressure on the trigger point with your thumb (or a tool like a knobber or theracane), at a level of 6-7 (on a scale of 1 to 10), with a slight back and forth motion (not sliding across the skin but rather moving the skin with your thumb or tool). Do this for a count of 6 or 7. Move slightly to see if there is another, nearby trigger point (or a cluster of trigger points), and repeat. Do this throughout the day. After a few days, you should notice a great improvement in your area of pain.
The other way to treat a trigger is to apply pressure (again with tool or thumb) at a level of 3 or 4 and hold it. Wait (keeping it at the same level of pressure) until it feels like a level of 1 (no pain, just pressure). Then apply more pressure to the same trigger point until it feel like a level 3 or 4 again and hold again until it feels like a level 1 again. Repeat one more time, unless you can’t go deep enough to produce a pain level 3. This method is the gentlest way to get rid of a trigger point. As with the method above, you may need to check nearby for other trigger points. If you don’t treat all of the trigger points associated with the area of pain, you’ll still have some pain, even if it’s somewhat diminished.
If you have a cluster of trigger points, a pretty straightforward method to treat the whole cluster is to grasp a thick portion of tissue in a “pinch,” then jiggle the entire pinch back and forth until the pain begins to ease. Be sure to get a good amount of tissue between your thumb and finger, or even use your whole hand.
Another technique I love to recommend for pain is Contrast Hydrotherapy. This means treating the area with both heat and cold. Again, there are a couple ways to do this.
When using products like these, it is very important to keep the ice or stone moving – don’t let it remain in one spot or it may damage the skin.
Apply the ice first, keeping it moving over the skin for one minute. Then quickly wipe dry and switch to the heat, keeping it moving over the skin for 30 seconds. Repeat with the ice for 30 seconds, heat for 30 seconds, etc. Go back and forth four or five times, or until the stones are no longer hot enough to feel a difference. You will probably need to use massage cream or lotion to help the hot stones glide smoothly over the skin.
In massage school we learned to do contrast hydrotherapy by using hand towels and two bins of water – one filled with ice water and the other filled with hot tap water (but not too hot as to burn the skin). This method is probably the easiest way to do it at home and is nice if you have a helper. Start with the hand towel soaked in the ice water, ring it out briefly, and apply for one minute. Then quickly switch to the hot water hand towel. Unlike using the tools, you would not move the towels over the skin. The quicker you can switch from one to the other, the better, which is why a helper is needed. Use the same timing – one minute of cold, then 30 seconds of heat, 30 seconds of cold, heat, etc.
If you don’t have a helper or the area of your body needing treatment is best done by yourself, you might want to use two hot/cold packs, and follow the same procedure as long as you have good enough cold and heat. This method may not be as effective because it’s difficult for your hot pack to stay hot when you apply it to cold skin, and vice versa.
Contrast hydrotherapy works well because it increases nourishing blood flow and stimulates healing cells to rush to the site and start working their magic. If often provides relief for hours afterward.
Stretching is another technique that encourages improved circulation and greater blood flow. Stretching also helps relieve muscle tension, but if you have trigger points, address them first. Otherwise you’ll be stretching the parts of the muscle that are already overstretched from having a bound up muscle knot in the middle. You might consider simply rolling out the muscle first, using a tool like the tiger stick or a foam roller.
Here is an example of two gentle back stretches recommended by Dr. Ben Kim. Here is an example of some glute stretches done by Matt Hsu. If you need to stretch a different area of your body, I would encourage doing a search for either of these guys plus your specific area of pain.
Always use caution when stretching. Move slowly into the stretch and never bounce. Focus on correct technique as well as breathing. If you exhale while doing the end stretch, you’ll be able to stretch further, because the exhale can distract the proprioceptors — neurons involved in stretch inhibition.
Several essential oils (if they are pure and of high quality) have analgesic or anti-inflammatory properties. Essential oils can be a great distraction (detour) from the pain pathway. Essential oils work best when used with a carrier oil (such as coconut, avocado, or almond), and can be applied directly to the area of pain or to the bottoms of your feet, where you have large pores and the oils can be absorbed into your bloodstream quickly.
Be sure to only use therapeutic-grade essential oils from a reputable company, and do a skin patch test to your forearm to check for possible irritation.
My favorite oils to use for pain and inflammation are lavender, wintergreen, Deep Blue (by doTERRA), peppermint, frankincense, and marjoram. Just try one or two to start with until you find what works best for a particular muscle. If you want to use more than one, it’s pretty effective to “layer” the oils rather than trying to blend them together.
After applying oils, be sure to wash and dry your hands completely, and do not touch your eyes!
If you get some relief from using one of these methods, try combining methods for an even greater effect. I especially like to combine essential oils with contrast hydrotherapy or apply them after doing trigger point therapy and stretching. Or, you may find that it works well to do different methods at different times throughout the day. At the very least, try to learn a simple stretch that you can quickly use at a time or place that is inconvenient for using any of the other pain relief techniques.
More and more people are avoiding over-the-counter painkillers, and with good reason – there are some negative side effects and harmful risks to your health. Next time you notice that aggravating ache or pain, try one of the above methods first, and you may experience even better results than you expect. Always follow a successful pain treatment technique with a positive affirmation aloud. In other words, tell someone, “I feel much better!” It’s amazing how helpful it is to hear yourself say it out loud. It confirms the results in your mind, and helps it to last longer.