Is your foam roller a friend or a foe?


Is your foam roller a friend or a foe?

The debate on foam rolling is one that divides opinion in fitness, physio and sports science circles.  Generally used as a means of self-myofascial release – a means of self-massaging to relieve tension in the soft connective tissues (fascia) and muscles – foam rollers have become must-have items in many gym bags, gyms and homes everywhere.

The chances are you will have already tried one, recommended by a trainer or a running friend, as a means of massaging soreness and speeding recovery.   Runners often tell us that they swear by them for ‘rolling out’ what they believe to be ‘tightness’ in their illiotibial bands (IT bands), quads and hamstrings.

So, what is the low-down from a research point of view?  Is your foam roller a true friend or nothing but a brightly-coloured foam fraudster?

Does the research stack up?

Although manufacturers claim foam rolling will help improve range of motion of joints, decrease muscle soreness and relieve pain, it is a relatively new area of research for sports scientists.  As such, to date there is no conclusive evidence of the benefits of foam rolling, especially beyond the short term.

Like many remedies out there, here at Apex Clinic we believe that foam rollers should be used sparingly.  Whilst there may be some suggested benefits, such as increasing circulation before exercise (although a good aerobic warm-up with dynamic stretches will do just the same if not more) or increasing joint range of movement prior to exercise, the benefits of rolling may be more limited than the sales pitch would have us believe.

Foam rolling: are you steamrolling over the surface of a deeper problem?

As physios, our ethos is always to treat pain at its source, not just treat the sore bit.  It may seem logical to roll out your IT band, quads, glutes or calves when they feel a bit tight or sore, in fact it may even feel quite good, but if you don’t know the cause of the recurrent tightness or pain, we recommend that you try to get to the bottom of the cause, in order to treat it effectively.

Treat pain at its source:

All pain has a reason as to why it started.  In many cases, underlying problems are to blame, such as a build-up of scar tissue (fibrosis) in an overused muscle, or poor foot biomechanics, poor nerve mobility of a nerve running through a painful area (altered neurodynamics) or even referred pain from the spine.  The only way to treat this sort of pain effectively is by having specialist physiotherapy to diagnose the problem and then the correct treatment plan can be implemented to gain a full recovery.  Prolonged rolling over time on an area of muscle or soft tissue that is repeatedly sore may do more harm than good. This is the case if you are stretching or compressing an already damaged or sensitive area, it may become gradually and gradually worse with this approach.

Look at the bigger picture:

At Apex Clinic, we recommend accurate diagnosis of any aches, pain and recurrent muscle tightness so that an accurate treatment plan can be implemented to clear the problem.  Foam rolling may feel good in the short term, but bear in mind, it has a limited use, just like any other healthcare product on the market. Don’t let foam rollers help you to neglect the bigger picture of what’s going on in your soft tissues!