Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation for Myofascial Pain Clinical Presentation

Updated: Mar 15, 2019
  • Author: Jennifer E Finley, MD, FAAPMR; Chief Editor: Dean H Hommer, MD  more...
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Patients with myofascial pain usually report regionalized aching and poorly localized pain in the muscles and joints. They also may report sensory disturbances, such as numbness in a characteristic of distribution. The type of pain felt is characteristic of the muscle involved. An acute onset may occur after a specific event or trauma (eg, moving quickly in an awkward position), while chronic pain may result from poor posture or overuse. [8] Patients may note disturbed sleep. Persons with cervical [9] and periscapular myofascial pain may have difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position. They may or may not be aware of muscle weakness in the affected muscles and may have a tendency to drop things.



A skilled examiner can provide accurate diagnosis of myofascial pain (MP). Unfortunately, most medical school and residency training programs do not adequately cover this common condition. [10] Locating trigger points (TrPs) is the most important part of the physical examination. TrPs tend to occur in characteristic locations in individual muscles. The book Travell and Simons' Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual is considered the criterion standard reference on locating and treating TrPs. [3, 11, 12]

When the TrP is located, the patient typically has a positive jump sign when local pressure is applied over the area; the jump sign should not be confused with an LTR. The jump sign simply means that the patient jumps from pain or discomfort in the area that has been palpated. Apply a consistent amount of pressure to the area, because applying too much pressure can elicit pain in nearly all individuals. A pressure algometer (ie, pressure threshold meter) or palpatometer can be used to standardize the amount of pressure applied. [13]

A taut band is found in the muscle, either by palpation or by needle penetration. It can be distinguished by palpating or by dragging the fingers perpendicular to the muscle fibers. A localized knot or a tight, ropy area is noted. Patients report that the area is extremely tender when palpated. A localized flinching in the area of the muscle being palpated or an LTR may be noted in active TrPs, as well as in latent ones. Palpation or insertion of a needle into the TrP causes reproduction of the patient's pain and, frequently, sensory complaints. Palpation of either an active or a latent TrP causes referred pain in a characteristic area for each muscle, a phenomenon described in the above-mentioned TrP manual. Sensory disturbance (eg, paresthesias, dysesthesias, localized skin tenderness) may be noted in the same area where pain may be referred. Autonomic phenomena also may be elicited (eg, sweating, piloerection, temperature changes).

Essential criteria for identifying an active or latent TrP include the following:

  • Palpable taut band if the muscle is accessible

  • Exquisite spot tenderness of a nodule in a taut band

  • Patient's recognition of current pain complaint by pressure on the tender nodule

  • Painful limit to full ROM stretch of the involved muscle

Confirmatory observations include the following:

  • Visual or tactile identification of an LTR

  • Imaging of an LTR induced by needle penetration of a tender nodule

  • Pain or altered sensation on compression of a tender nodule, in the distribution expected from a TrP in that muscle

  • Electromyographic demonstration of spontaneous electrical activity (SEA) that is characteristic of active loci in the tender nodule of a taut band

  • Lowered skin resistance to electrical current - This has been found over active TrPs when compared with surrounding tissue and may be useful in localizing TrPs. Skin resistance normalizes after the treatment of TrPs.



Many factors may contribute to the development of myofascial pain (MP). Abnormal stresses on the muscles from sudden stress on shortened muscles, leg-length discrepancies, or skeletal asymmetry are thought to be common causes of MP. Poor posture also may cause MP.

Assumption of a static position for a prolonged period or conversely, performing repetitive movements, has been implicated in the condition, particularly in a cold environment.

Anemia and low levels of calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamins C, B-1, B-6, and B-12 are believed to play a role.

Chronic infections and sleep deprivation have been cited as causative factors, as have radiculopathy, visceral diseases, and depression. Hypothyroidism, hyperuricemia, and hypoglycemia also have been implicated in MP.

The pathogenesis likely has a central mechanism, with peripheral clinical manifestations.