The Benefits of Foam Rolling for Self-Myofascial Release

by Lindsay Weinberg, PT, DPT; Ortho Montana for AMP

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 Sports Page Newsletter from AMP Montana in conjunction with Ortho Montana, the Yellowstone Surgery Center, and St. Vincent Healthcare. Used with permission.

You’ve probably seen a foam roller before. Whether it was lying around in a gym, physical therapy clinic, an athletic training room or in a store aisle and wondered who uses them and what they are actually used for. They can be intimidating and awkward to use but in reality are much easier than they appear and have loads of benefits and uses for all types of athletes and recreational weekend warriors. Whether the person is on a varsity sports team, rehabbing an injury, using it for injury prevention or as a supplement to their activity of choice, many different people can benefit from using a foam roller in their program.


What are Foam Rollers and What the Heck do They Do?

Foam rollers are devices that are commonly used for self-myofascial release. A foam roller consists of a dense piece of foam that can vary in length, density and surface texture. Foam rollers are used for multiple therapeutic, strengthening and rehabilitative purposes.


A foam roller provides the user deep compression that helps break up or relax tight muscles and adhesions. These adhesions form between muscle layers and surrounding tissues, which can cause muscle knots or trigger points within the muscles.  The deep compression felt during self-myofascial release allows normal blood flow to return to the area and helps to restore healthy tissue. By applying pressure to specific points on the body, you are able to aid in the recovery of muscles and assist in returning them to their normal functional level.


Foam rolling provides greater benefit than static stretching alone because it is able to release adhesions in the tissue layers.  Foam rollers serve as a great adjunct used in a stretching program or in some cases serve as a replacement to a regular static stretching program. There are many research studies available that explore the benefits of foam rolling and whom they provide the greatest physical assistance too.  Research shows that use of a foam roller before static stretching improves muscle length and flexibility over time.  Research has also proven that foam rolling is an effective way to alleviate symptoms from delayed onset muscle soreness associated with training and exercise. Studies have shown that foam rolling does not have much effect on increasing speed, power, or producible forces; but research has shown that foam rolling is a good compliment to a program that already addresses those aspects of sports and training.

Do I Need To Do This?

An athletic trainer or other health care provider can perform various athletic screening tests and functional movement screens that can help you determine the areas where you should focus on using a foam roller for your body.  Athletic screening tests commonly used to identify these areas include: deep squat, hip hinge, and the sit and reach tests. A physician or physical therapist can perform a detailed objective physical examination of your posture, muscle length, strength imbalances and functional movement screening.


Good Posture and Normal Muscle Function

Posture is maintaining balance, muscular coordination and adaptation with a minimal expenditure of energy. Posture is important because it decreases unnecessary stresses on junctional zones throughout our spine and allows us to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Good posture helps us stay prepared for the next movement we need to perform. With poor posture, weight is distributed either to the front or back of a joint and the body is counterbalanced by passive tension in the joint tissues.  Poor posture adds unnecessary stress and pressure to our joints resulting in pain.


Normal function means that our muscles are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform at a moment’s notice.  If muscles are not taken care of properly we can experience loss of flexibility and motion, adhesions can form, and movements could become painful.


What is Myofascial Release?

Myofascial release is a hands on technique performed by a trained individual to restore balance to tissues, helping to reduce pain, restore motion, and mobility.  Soft tissue manipulation is the use of gentle forces to impart passive movement of the musculoskeletal elements through directions that are restricted beginning with the most superficial layers and progressing into depth while taking into account its relationship to the surrounding joints.  During this technique a low load is applied slowly to cause fascia to elongate.  When subjected to gentle traction, fascia slides easily whether through hands on manipulation of tissues or the inherent rhythmic movements of the body in motion.


Can I Do This Myself?

Yep! Self-myofascial release is a fancy term for self-massage which an individual can perform on themselves to release muscle tightness or trigger points.  Myofascial release focuses on the neural and fascial systems in the body that can be negatively influenced by poor posture, repetitive motions, or dysfunctional movements.  A major benefit to self-myofascial release is that it provides the user the ability to control their healing, as well as recovery by applying pressure in precise locations that only the user can feel.  Self-myofascial release can be performed using a foam roller or other various products including thera-canes, tennis balls and massage/roller sticks.


Trigger Point

Trigger points are specific “knots” that develop in parts of the body, which are a source of hyperirritability in a muscle or its fascia. These “knots” are known to cause a local twitch response or autonomic phenomena that people commonly call a spasm.  Understandably these “knots” or points are very tender, prevent full lengthening of muscles, weakens muscles, and has a referral pain pattern.  Releasing these trigger points helps to reestablish proper movement patterns and pain free movement, which ultimately, can lead to enhanced physical performance and function.


Where Do These Problems Come From?

Myofascial restrictions arise from a variety of pathologies including trauma, inflammation, post-surgically, and after immobilization.  Our tissues become immobilized in a variety ways including direct trauma, muscle guarding, pain, and habitual movement patterns whether work or sports related. Poor posture such as head forward, rounded shoulders, increased pelvic tilt and spinal curves from scoliosis and leg length differences are another cause of tissue immobilization. Additionally strains from over-exercising, tendonitis/osis, metabolic factors, and issues with other organ systems are considered contributing factors. Restricted motion due to adhesions between muscle layers and areas of muscle tightness can have many negative physiological effects on the body. These negative physiological effects include muscle atrophy from disuse, degeneration of cartilage, binding of fascia, and impaired nutrition and blood supply to tissues.  Over time physical changes can appear in our body, including spur formation affecting bone structure. Muscles may become too weak to move through a full range of motion causing the capsule to tighten, restricting joint mobility.


How Do I Do It??

The technique for foam rolling consists of applying moderate pressure to a muscle or muscle group using the foam roller and your bodyweight by rolling slowly back and forth.  When you find an area that is tight or painful, pause for several seconds and try to relax.  After 5-30 seconds you can feel the muscle releasing and the discomfort or pain should lessen. If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, shift roller, and apply pressure on surrounding area and gradually work to loosen the entire area you are treating.


Does it Hurt?

Although it has many proven therapeutic benefits at times foam rolling may be uncomfortable or slightly painful.  The amount of pain that is typical is best equated it to the pain felt stretching.  When rolling on tight or sore muscles you may experience discomfort or pain. It can be uncomfortable but should not be unbearable.  When you are done you should feel better not worse. Don’t be too aggressive!


Are There Risks?

For safety always consult with your health care provider of choice before starting a new exercise regimen to determine if it is appropriate for you. Foam rolling may not be appropriate for all of us. Never roll directly over your joints or bones!  Avoid rolling the lower back area below the ribcage. Always use caution with your neck and support your neck and head with your hands when rolling your back.  It is advised not to foam roll if you have issues with congestive heart failure, skin diseases, organ failure or bleeding disorders.

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