Do Foam Rollers Work?

roamrollerassortmentFoam rollers come in all shapes and sizes and if you ask many fitness professionals, they are an effective way to restore lost range of motion and ease pain. Generally, they’re cylindrical in shape and varying lengths. Foam rollers also vary in firmness (density).

Foam rolling, in general, involves applying moderate pressure to a muscle or muscle group rolling the roller over the target area with your hands, or using your body weight against the foam roller, to compress and lengthen muscle tissue.  In some cases, rollers can help release trigger points to help reestablish pain free movement. During the slow roll movement, the muscle releases and after about 15-30 seconds, pain will decrease.

But like any tool, there’s a right way and wrong way to use them. And, like you don’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver, there are times when other tools are better. If used incorrectly, the foam roller can actually do more harm than good, and foam rolling is most definitely no substitute for manual therapy from a trained therapist.

Sometimes rolling works, sometimes, not so much.

How do foam rollers work?

Foam rolling, also referred to as self-myofascial release (SMR), works by compressing, lengthening and smoothing muscle tissue and moving fascia–the thin sheath of fibrous tissue that encloses your muscles.

itbandThe illiotibial band (IT band) is an example of a commonly foam rolled body structure. It’s located on the outer part of your upper leg and runs from your knee up through your hip. The pressure against the IT band smooths it and compresses the vastus lateralis (one of the quadriceps) which lies underneath.  While foam rolling may bring relief, it’s probably largely because of what the pressure is doing to the quads and gluten, not any effect on the IT band itself.  The IT band, after all, is a tendon.  It doesn’t expand or contract.  Instead it transfers contractile forces of the TFL, gluteus maximus and other muscles in your upper leg and hip.

It is also important to note that when you use a foam roller, you’re actually exercising.  That is, all the same endorphins and other hormones are released as when you do other types of exercises.  So, some of the relief you feel is a result of the same buzz you get when you do any other type of exercise.

Issues with foam rolling

Foam rollers are good at temporary relief of pain. What foam rolling doesn’t do is correct the postural or body mechanics issue that caused the pain in the first place.

Foam rolling has other limitations, too, including:

1. It usually hurts.  Often foam rollers are used over already stressed and irritated muscles. When you’re foam rolling, your body is pretty much sending you a message that it doesn’t particularly like what you’re doing, and your body springs into action to infuse the rolled area with blood and suppress nerve responses.  After rolling, the combination of hormones released in response to acute pain combined with a lengthened, relaxed muscle, helps deaden pain. But, ultimately, it doesn’t fix the problem. It just makes it feel better.

2. Foam rollers are more for muscle groups, not individual muscles.  Unlike massage where a therapist can specifically target the muscle attachments and joint areas that may cause your pain, foam rollers cover a larger area and generally are a “grenade solution” to a “slingshot” issue.  That is, it gets to the problem by crushing every structure in the vicinity with generalized pressure in hopes of getting the targeted muscle in the process. Not very efficient, but often effective. Unfortunately, the “collateral damage” may cause other issues, like bruising, or tenderness, in the area rolled.

3. Getting the pressure right is tricky.  When you get a massage from a sports therapist, they’ll check in about pressure often.  With a foam roller, it is very difficult to control the amount of pressure to any specific structure, and, unfortunately, bruising and further irritation and inflammation can occur if you “over roll” or if your body weight is too much pressure.  Yet another reason to seek a massage professional.  They carefully control and localize pressure using only what’s needed, and not enough to further damage structures around the muscle or joint.

This is how we roll?

The bottom line is that foam rolling, when done correctly, works for temporary relief of pain. It’s not the solution for every muscle ache, and it certainly is a much more general solution to what is generally a very specific issue.  That’s why it’s no substitute for a purposeful, targeted massage.  If you’re an avid foam roller, go see a sports massage therapist. The therapist will help you learn more about the cause of the soreness and the pain relief will likely last longer.