For an effective masseuse without the hefty price tag, look no further than the foam roller. Combined with our body weight, this simple cylinder can loosen tight muscles and correct muscular imbalances, all from the comfort (er, more on that in a bit) of home A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. Curran, P.F., Fiore, R.D., Crisco, J.J. Department of Orthopaedics, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University/Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, RI 02903, USA. Journal of Sports Rehabilitation. 2008 Nov;17(4):432-42.. While it requires a little more effort than relaxing on a table, foam rolling is good for those looking to relieve pain and prevent injury without the pampering.
Rock 'n' Roll — The Need-to-Know
Foam rolling is a popular form of self-myofascial release (SMR), a type of soft-tissue therapy that focuses on the nerves and connective tissue (or fascia) between muscles. Due to overuse and injury, muscle fibers and fascia can become knotted together and, if left untreated, this condition can cause a buildup of movement-impairing scar tissue. Foam rolling, massage, and other myofascial release techniques use direct pressure to stretch problem muscles until these knots — and the imbalances they cause — are at least partially removed Development and Application of a Newly Designed Massage Instrument for Deep Cross-Friction Massage in Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain. Yong-Soon, Y., Ki-Pi, Y., Jae Lee, K, et al. Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Jesus Hospital, Jeonju 560-750, Korea. Korean Academy of Rehabilitation Medicine. Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine. 2012 Feburary; 36(1): 55-65.. And since a single muscle imbalance can lead to faulty movement patterns and joint fatigue, foam rollers are more than worth their (admittedly light) weight in preventative gold Theoretical basis for patterning EMG amplitudes to assess muscle dysfunction. Edgerton, V.R., Wolf, S.L., Levendowski, D.J., Roy, R.R. Department of Physiological Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1996 Jun;28(6):744-51..
Roll the Pain Away — Your Action Plan
While it's effective at reducing pain in muscles like the quads and hamstrings, foam rolling is not a substitute for orthopedic care after a significant muscle tear. Self-massage techniques might also be significantly more effective at relieving acute pain, though recent research suggests benefits for chronic pain sufferers as well Sustained Release Myofascial Release as Treatment for a Patient with Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Collagenous Colitis: A Case Report. Cubick, E., Quezada, V., Schumer, A., et al. Department of Physical Therapy, University of Miami. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. 2011; 4(3): 1-9.. Nor is it recommended as a solution for people with severe acute arthritis or painful varicose veins Myofascial release of carpal tunnel syndrome. Sucher, B.M. Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 1993 Jan;93(1):92-4, 100-1. 6-day intensive treatment protocol for refractory chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome using myofascial release and paradoxical relaxation training. Anderson, R.U., Wise, D., Sawyer, T., et al. Department of Urology, School of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-5118, USA. Journal of Urology, 2011 Apr;185(4):1294-9. Epub 2011 Feb 22..
Otherwise, foam rolling can be done anytime, anywhere. And it’s especially useful as part of a workout warm-up or cool-down. Place the targeted muscle group on top of the foam roller, apply gentle pressure, and slowly roll along the trouble spot. If a particular area is tight or painful, pause over it for 20-30 seconds, pulsing on and off until tenderness has subsided. Disclaimer: If it hurts like hell, it's probably working.
The foam roller may put a dent in tight muscles, but at $10-$30, it won’t leave a huge mark on the pocketbook. Foam rollers aren’t the only tool in the SMR trade, though. For more targeted muscle therapy, try a simple tennis or lacrosse ball, SMR block, or The Stick, and, hey, let the good times roll.
Have any sneaky foam rolling tips? Tell us in the comments below!
Originally published June 2011. Updated April 2012.
Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft