Foam Rolling, Do Or Don’t – Lina Englund, Physiotherapist

Most people wish they could have a great manual therapist or massage therapist follow them through the day, myself included. If you are one of us, the amazingly versatile and cost effective foam roller could be your solution. By no means do I want to compare the skills of an therapist with a foam roller, but for maintenance it can be key.

Athletes all over the world go nowhere without their rollers and I stick to the opinion that if athletes do it, you should do it. Athletes have countless health professionals making sure that their bodies are in top condition and I believe that you deserve the same care.

There is some controversy whether or not foam rolling works as well as we think it does, and there is limited scientific research in the area. However, most clinicians agree, based on clinical experience, that it is effective.

What It Is

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, or self massage. The foam roller itself is a cylindrical piece of closed-celled foam. There are various forms of firmness and length of the foam rollers. Usually they are color-coded, white being the softer version progressing to either blue or green and finishing of with the stiffest black version. The stiffer the roller, the deeper and more effective (and more painful) is the massage. There are longer ones that can be easily turned into a great balance and core stability workout tool, and shorter ones ideal for easy transport and storage.

How It Can Help

Manual therapists and massage therapists can successfully release muscles with various forms of techniques, such as; myofascial release, trigger point therapy, massage and Active Release Therapy (ART). Soft tissue release has great importance in treatment and prevention of many musculoskeletal disorders and it is important with regular treatments for best possible results. This is where the foam roller steps in.

The physiological reasoning behind it is the same as with any other soft tissue mobilization, it creates a chemical input that actually irritates the tissue. This irritation is initially painful, but the response is often a healing one. When the tissue is disrupted it produces the substances that tissues need to heal and get realigned.

Who Should Use It

Anyone with tight or over-active muscles. A wild guess is that it includes about 99% of the population, but do not take my word for it, I am no statistician. It is unlikely that all muscles would be in need of foam rolling, so you are better off getting a professional assessment by a physiotherapist or RMT in order to create the most effective release- and stretch program. Generally, if rolling over a specific area produces pain or tenderness, it is probably in need of release.

How To Use It

The treatment is initially painful, and it is painful for a reason. As mentioned you are irritating the tissues, so there is definitely a possibility to overdo it. Some have experienced heavy bruising after going to hard at a tissue so less is often more. A foam roller is generally more appropriate for larger areas of the body, while a tennis- or golf ball can work the same magic in smaller areas.

General Instructions:

  • Do not roll over acute injuries or any form of soft tissue injury that is not cleared by a health professional
  • Give each muscle group a good 10 rolls up and down the whole length of the muscles
  • Address any tender spots or trigger points by staying on that spot until the pain has decreased by about 75%
  • Even if foam rolling is fairly uncomfortable initially, it should not give you excruciating pain
  • You know that the self-treatment is effective when you eventually feel less tenderness over previously painful muscles

For examples of how you can use your foam roller, check out our posts on release work.

Take home message: Foam rolling is an affordable massage for the masses when used appropriately and with care.

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