Note: Stress points should not be confused with acupuncture or acupressure points as they are different systems and treatments.
What Are stress points?
Stress points are tiny micro tears in the fibers that make up a muscle.
What Causes Stress Points?
Injury, chronic pain due to an old injury, repetitive practice of a particular maneuver, a slip or fall, illness such as colic or upper respiratory infections, even arthritis are a few things that can set in motion the development of stress points. Stress points can develop anytime muscles are stressed and overworked.
Can You Feel A Stress Point?
Yes. Stress points feel hard and rigid in the muscle. At times they are easy to find, feeling like a small marble or BB in the muscle. Other times they are harder to detect, feeling more like a small flat thumbtack in the tissue. Many times these knots or bumps are located within a ridged band running along the muscle. A horse will always react by twitching or moving away when pressure is applied to the correct spot. Stress points can develop throughout the length of the muscle, but are most often found near the ends of the muscle, where the muscle turns into tendons which connect to the bone.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Stress Point?
Acute Phase: The first indication of stress point development is localized tenderness with heat and inflammation. If just a few muscle fibers are involved the injury might not be noticed unless direct pressure is applied to the spot where the tearing occurred. The more muscle fibers that are involved the more noticeable the injury. 72 – 96 hours after the initial injury the stress point can often be felt, treated and resolved quickly.
Chronic Phase: If stress points are not treated soon after injury, these tiny muscle knots start to affect the muscle and the surrounding tissues. Other fibers in the muscle begin to tear because they are overloaded picking up the work of the previously injured and now immobile fibers. In time the muscle which was the origin of the injury begins to lose elasticity and mobility. The body begins to compensate, using other muscles in other areas of the body for movement. This sets off a chain reaction. The other muscles become overused, sore, stiffness sets in and lameness may occur. By now the area showing signs of tenderness or lameness is often far removed from the original injury. During this time the other compensating muscles create stress points which will also require treatment.
Example: your horse gets kicked in chest while turned out with another horse. There is a small area tender to the touch but otherwise he seems fine. Weeks to months later, the horse is suddenly off in the opposite back hindquarter. Chances are you have completely forgotten about the kick, or dismissed it because it was in the chest. However, it is quite possible that this new problem is due to overwork and strain of opposite back and hindquarter muscles caused by stress points in the chest.
How Are Stress Points Treated?
Stress points must be treated manually. The exact location must be found, pressure applied to relieve the spasm caused by torn fibers, and then friction applied to break up adhesions that were formed when the body restricts movement of the fibers in the healing process. Once the stress point is properly treated along with other manual therapy techniques and proper exercise to restore muscle and body balance, true healing occurs.
Treating the muscle with heat, cold, laser therapy, ultra-sound therapy and medications will bring temporary relief in many cases. However, these methods address a larger area and do not specifically address stress points. These treatments sometimes relax the stress point but they do not resolve it and they do not address the adhesions. Both the point and adhesions must be treated to restore full mobility.
Stress Points Are Undetectable In Imaging Processes
It is important to remember that stress points cannot be diagnosed through imaging processes. They do not show on X-rays (which are usually not used for diagnostic purposes for soft tissue injury), ultra-sounds or even MRIs. Why is this? During the natural movement of a muscle, ‘bumps’ occur along the muscle as the individual fibers shorten and lengthen. Stress points and the tiny knots caused by muscle restriction are as of now undetectable through imaging from the normal ‘bumps’ that occur during muscle movement. This is an oversimplified answer to a very complex mechanism, but it allows basic understanding of the process.
Find the Source To Treat the Problem
Stress points are one of the major components overlooked when dealing with a horse with undiagnosed muscle pain. It is natural to be drawn to the location of soreness and lameness and try to fix that area. However when dealing with muscular and soft tissue dysfunction it is important to remember that everything in a body is connected and works together. Always remember, the area that is sore or where lameness is evident, maybe a result, not be the source or cause of the problem. Until the original source is found and treated, the problem will continue.