Do foam rollers work?

Foam rollers are quickly becoming a popular piece of equipment for many people. Gyms are beginning to offer them as a piece of exercise equipment along with weights and kettle bells. Like any new fad that emerges, many people are often skeptical at first. Foam rolling is not any different, and many people wonder if using a foam roller actually works.

What are the purposes of a foam roller?

A foam roller is used as a way to self-massage, also known as self-myofascial release. Believers of foam rolling say that users can improve performance, flexibility, function and reduce injuries. With this technique, someone places a foam roller underneath his body. Using body weight, they roll along the roller. The pressure of the roller massages away knots in muscles and relieves tension.

Fascia is a part of the body that provides function and support for muscles. It is a soft tissue belonging to connective tissue. It can often become restricted due to overuse, inactivity and trauma. When this happens, inflammation occurs. If the inflammation is bad enough, it causes thick tissue. That, in turn, leads to irritation, pain and even more inflammation.

Foam rolling is performed by rolling a muscle group until a painful area is found. Then, pressure is maintained by putting pressure on the spot for up to one minute. Eventually, the user will become more accustomed to using the foam roller. As knots are worked out of the muscles, they get softer and more pliable. Stress and tension are relieved.

What critics say about foam rolling

Critics of foam rolling have remained skeptical regarding several aspects of the practice. While most experts have accepted that foam rolling works to relieve stress, they claim that some aspects of rolling may actually be harmful for the body.

One critic, a manual therapist, said that rolling directly on the painful area is a mistake. She says that the areas of pain the body are actually results of imbalances in other areas. For example, those who use a foam roller on their IT band may not be doing any good. The manual therapist says that the IT band is such a strong piece of connective tissue that foam rolling cannot manipulate it. She also says that if you are in pain, your body will be too stressed to repair itself. She suggests rolling areas around the painful area using large, sweeping motions. For the IT band, she suggests rolling areas and large muscle groups that connect to the IT band.

Other experts say that it is too easy to injure yourself in regards to having bad posture. For example, when rolling out the IT band, you will have to support your upper body weight with one arm. Also, when rolling out the quads, it is required to be in a plank position. If bad posture is practiced with these motions, it can cause pre-existing conditions to get worse which may cause even more harm.

While some proponents of foam rolling say that rolling the lower back is acceptable, other say that rolling the lower back is something that should never be done. One expert says that the muscles around the lower back will contract to protect the spine.

Another incorrect way to use a foam roller is to hold your breath while rolling. Holding your breath robs the body of oxygenated blood that may contribute to releasing stress and increasing circulation. Taking deep breaths while rolling helps to maximize the foam rolling experience.

Also, when using a foam roller, experts agree that you should not roll over any bony joints. Applying direct pressure to a joint will increase the likelihood of hyperextending the joints.

What do studies say?

There has been some disagreement on what comprises the fascia, the part of the connective tissue. Because of this, there is a great deal of confusion regarding the communication between researchers in various fields and between clinicians and researchers. In broad terms, the fascia is the connective tissue wrapping our muscles and is connected to muscular function.

Researchers believe that fascia is important for transmitting tension from one part of the body to another. According to a standard definition, fascia has the following functions: providing support and protection, acting as a shock absorber, maintaining structural integrity, supports intercellular communication, establishes an environment for post-injury tissue repair and functions as the body’s first line of defense against infections and pathogens.

Because the fascia has so many seemingly important functions in the body, it is imperative to keep it healthy. Researchers have suggested that foam rolling may improve blood flow circulation and pain sensations.

While research on foam rolling is still ongoing, small experiments have suggested that, overall, the practice is healthy for the body. Some doctors that fond that after an intense workout, volunteers who used foam rollers on the legs performed better 72 hours after the workout compared to those who did not.

Much of the positive evidence with foam rolling is anecdotal. There have been a few studies showing that it does increase short-term range of motion that are not accompanied by strength loss. However, many of those who regularly engage in foam rolling say that it helps their body to stay flexible and relieve stress.

One athlete who regularly uses a foam roller says that it has helped her recover from intense workouts, reduced tightness in the IT band, inner thigh and hips. She uses it on almost every part of her body. Another lady says that the foam roller has helped to keep her back more relaxed and sleep better at night. Others appreciate the deep tissue massage that foam rolling provides, saying it provides them with loose muscles and reducing pain.