Blog for Patients

Foam Rolling II : How it Works and Some Examples

Posted on: June 23rd, 2015 by Dan Sivertson
Foam Roller for the Latissimus Dorsi

How does it Work ?

In my last post ( Foam Rolling I ) I talked about the research evidence for foam rolling. You should read it, but the take home message is that foam rolling:

  • can help increase flexibility in the short term (for about 10 minutes after rolling)
  • can increase flexibility in the long term (over several weeks)
  • will not adversely affect your athletic performance by “over-relaxing” your muscles

So the question is two-fold: how does it work, and how do I do it?

The most common explanation of how foam rolling works, but that has zero research evidence or plausibility, is that the foam roller is breaking up scar tissue or stretching fascia. Scars and fascia are very strong, so it is unlikely that a foam roller could lengthen out these tough tissues. Fascia is the network of connective tissue that travels through our bodies to envelope, separate or bind muscles and organs to one another. In the human body, everything is directly, or indirectly attached to each other.

Thomas Myers is a very well respected researcher and clinician in the world of muscular and fascial anatomy. Myer’s thought on foam rolling is that foam rolling acts to push the water around inside of the fascia. Like pushing on one part of a wet sponge, the water moves to the other part of the sponge. As you roll back and forth, you are moving water from a high pressure area (the tissue under the roller) to an area of low pressure (the adjacent area). I think we would all agree that circulation of our fluids is important, and when 80% of our body is water, his theory makes some sense.

Most other seemingly valid theories (and that is all they are at this time, theories) is that the foam roller acts on our nervous system. The two most commonly cited explanations in this realm are:

  1. The roller works on the stretch receptors in our muscles and encourages relaxation of the muscles, similar to deep tissue massage.
  2. The roller works by “diffuse noxious inhibitory control” ( what the….?!?) . Basically the idea is that if something hurts ( e.g. your lower back ) and you cause some pain somewhere else nearby ( e.g. your butt muscles by sitting and rolling on a hard round foam roller), it takes your brain’s focus off of the original painful area. As you move around, your brain starts to say “ Hey this movement and pressure hurts a bit, but it’s not making my back any worse!”. After a while the brain and nervous system start to relax and calm down a bit. The pain then calms down and you feel better. At least for a while. The body and brain need to do something with this temporary reduction in pain and increase in flexibility, and what that is, is to move your body in non-painful ways. That could be any safe form of exercise such as yoga, walking, a light exercise session at the gym et cetera. This way your nervous system “learns” that foam rolling helps, and that the movements you did following it, felt good and will probably feel good the next time you do them.

So here are a few videos of how you can do foam rolling. You can buy a foam roller at any fitness equipment store, or at Pure Form Physiotherapy. Try about 1-2 minutes, per body area mentioned. There are few different ways to use the roller. The videos show me rolling along the muscles. You can also stay on one tight, sore spot part for 30 seconds to a minute and wait for the sore area to relax and feel better.

This is not intended to be an article on injury self-treatment; if you are in a lot of pain or you are concerned about something, please consult your doctor or health care professional for further advice.

Enjoy your rolling session!

Comments are closed.

Back to top