A large proportion of the active and even inactive population have no doubt either come across or used a foam roller as a form of self massage. Results can often vary greatly between individuals and in some cases symptoms can be made worse. In order, to get the best out of your foam roller it is helpful know a little about the principles behind the massage techniques the roller is based on. It is equally useful to know a little about anatomy, physiology and types of injury.
An American Physical Therapist, Sean Gallagher is commonly referred to as the originator of the foam roller or more specifically its use in self-myofascial release. The use of foam rollers for self-massage appears to date back to the early to mid 1980’s. The foam roller industry has grown hugely in the last 5-10 years and there are all kinds of videos and books of people happily (smiling) whilst foam rolling various parts of their body. That said there are many health and fitness products advertised with people happily smiling whilst using them. For those of you that have actually used a form roller, it is certainly rarely a smiling experience and at worst a gritted teeth experience. There is also an ever increasing number of foam roller designs, shapes and sizes and a huge industry has developed in a relatively short period of time.
A good massage therapist has a number of advantages over a person attempting self-massage with a foam roller. In order, to get the best out of self-massage foam rolling one needs to understand these differences and try to account for them. When performed correctly a foam roller can be an extremely valuable tool, though it does have limits and cannot totally replace a good massage therapist. Foam rollers are best suited to treating larger (longer) muscles in the body, such as the legs. It is extremely hard and frequently impossible to treat smaller (shorter) muscles with a foam roller. Such muscles tend to be inaccessible to a foam roller, due to the muscles location within the body and the design and way in which the foam roller is used. Shorter muscles within the body can and frequently affect longer muscles, which then become the symptom and not the cause. This article touches on the kinetic chain and symptom and cause later, though there is not scope to cover such things in detail. The article also does not have scope to cover such things as postural and phasic muscles, which are relevant to the kinetic chain. I will no doubt cover such things in future articles.
The relevance of Pressure, Tissue reaction and Pain
When muscles are relaxed they are far easier to treat or massage and a good massage therapist will use differing pressure and techniques according to tissue tension. Applying, too much pressure or the wrong technique has a tendency create pain, making tissues tense up and create more pain. People in pain often adopt a rapid and shallow breathing pattern, which also has a tendency to create further tissue tension. In essence, the body is in “fight or flight” mode and the sympathetic nervous becomes fired up. Trying to then pummel the tissues into submission then tends to prove hugely unpleasant for the patient and can even lead to bruising. It may then feel great afterwards, once the pain infliction has ended and the bodies natural endorphins have been released. That said a good massage therapist should know how to work with the body and get great results without all the pain. A massage therapist has the advantage of the fact that the patient is laying down in a relaxed position. The relaxed position means that the muscles are not under the additional load of holding the patient’s own body weight. A good massage or sports massage therapist can then treat the tissues with relatively little pain, providing pressure is used correctly.
In the case of foam rolling, one frequently has to get into positions which result in the tissues one is treating becoming tense or placed under load. As mentioned, massaging muscles under load can be painful, even when using a self-massage foam roller. Ideally, one wants to try and have the muscles being treated with the foam roller under as little load as possible. This may mean having to find some innovative self-massage positions and trying to relax tissues.
A Foam Roller and Massage Therapy
Massage therapy training can vary hugely in terms of the types of massage techniques learnt and the duration of training. One of the more basic set of massage and sports massage techniques taught and used by massage therapists is Petrissage. The way in which a foam roller is used is very similar to some of the petrissage massage techniques, such as squeezing and stripping. However, a massage therapist learns additional techniques and can use all techniques more specifically than is really possible with a foam roller. That said, self-massage with a foam roller should be able to produce some of the results that a massage therapist can with Petrissage techniques. Such benefits are believed to include, reduced muscle tension, increased venous and lymphatic return, increased tissue permeability, all of which can aid in the removal of waste products.
As a foam roller works based on principles of massage, it actually makes sense to take some learning from massage therapy. Early on in massage training therapists are taught to massage towards the heart, especially with deep tissue techniques. In brief, blood is pumped from the heart around the body and returned via veins. Blood is in effect, shunted through the veins via a series of one way gates within the veins. As we move, this causes muscles contractions, which in turn squeeze blood from one gate to the next and move lymph around the body in a similar fashion. The shunting of the blood in effect pumps the blood back to the heart for re-oxygenation. The reason massage therapists are taught to massage towards the heart is because of the relatively fragile nature of the one-way gates within the veins. Pushing blood the opposite way to the one-way gates in veins can lead to damage to these gates. Damage to or failure of the gates within veins is commonly seen as varicose veins, as blood tends to pool in sections of the veins. Hence, it equally makes sense that when one is applying self-massage with a foam roller one works towards the heart, rather than backwards and forwards. As with Massage it is easily possible to overwork soft tissues, which can lead to bruising, inflammation and a longer recovery time. Again, a good massage therapist is trained and knows how not to overwork tissues.
Why NOT to Foam Roller an ITB
I have frequently seen people using foam rollers to treat tight Illiotibial Bands (ITB’s). Unfortunately, in many respects ITB’s are a structural component, much like tendons and ligaments. Usually, one would not want to stretch structural components as they provide stability to other parts of the body within the kinetic chain. Too much stretching can lead to laxity in the tissues, which then impacts how other tissues work. Also, a tight ITB is a symptom and so not only is stretching it a pointless exercise, but it is also a highly uncomfortable process. Although, using a foam roller on the ITB may produce some tension relief, it is not going to fix the problem. The cause of the ITB tension is going to be somewhere else in the kinetic chain and is likely to be impacting multiple components in the chain. The ITB then usually becomes tight as a result of other dysfunctional tissues, which in turn create additional load on other tissues and further dysfunction.
- Avoid applying too much pressure.
- Avoid massaging muscles which are under load.
- Massage towards the heart.
- Avoid massaging the symptom (tight ITB) and address the cause.
- Avoid overworking tissues.
- Avoid using a foam roller to treat inflamed tissues, or tissues in spasm.
- Avoid using a foam roller if you meet any of the contraindications for Massage, Sports Massage or Remedial Massage.
- If in doubt seek advice from a suitably qualified therapist or primary care practitioner.
Article written by Dr Terry Davis B.Sc (Hons), MChiro, Adv. Dip. Rem. Massag. DC.
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