What Do Foam Rollers Do?
In an attempt to soothe aching muscles or increase range of motion, many people have added foam rolling to their exercise routine. There’s a lot of talk about why we should or shouldn’t be foam rolling, but do we actually know what it does to our muscles?
Luckily there is a growing body of research that is attempting to answer this exact question. It seems as though foam rolling does have a benefit, but it doesn’t do what many people think it does. Many people believe that foam rolling can be used to lengthen their muscles or to perform self-myofascial release. However, in a 2019 review article on this topic, it became very clear to readers that the term “self-myofascial release” can be misleading (Behm & Wilke, 2019). Authors were not able to find enough evidence in the scientific literature to prove that myofascial restrictions were being released by these foam rolling practices. They do however note that foam rolling can create changes in your muscles. Some studies have shown that there is an increase in range of motion after following a foam rolling protocol (Junker & Stöggl, 2019). In other words, study participants who used a foam roller were more flexible after rolling out their muscles compared to the group of participants who just stretched. But if we know that the foam roller doesn’t lengthen the muscles or the fascia, what is happening here? Why is there an increase in range of motion?
Based on their review of the literature, the authors Behm and Wilke (2019) believe that the changes in joint range of motion are due to the activation of certain receptors in your muscles, which then changes how you perceive pain. In a way, it’s like using the foam roller to temporarily trick your nervous system. By changing how you perceive pain, you can stretch further. However, these results are only short-term (Cheatham et al, 2015).
As you can see, foam rolling is proven to have a positive impact on muscles and fascia. However, it does not replace manual therapy as it does not create long-term changes in the length and tone of your muscles. If a muscle or soft tissue is chronically contracted or injured, the best thing you can do is seek out high-quality osteopathic care. The foam roller can be a great tool in your wellness tool kit, but it is not the solution to all your aches and pains.
Behm, D.G. and Wilke J. (2019). Do Self-Myofascial Release Devices Release Myofascia? Rolling Mechanisms: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 49(8), 1173-1181
Junker, D. and Stöggl T. (2019). The Training Effects of Foam Rolling on Core Strength Endurance, Balance, Muscle Performance and Range of Motion: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 18(2), 229-238
Cheatham, S.W., Kolber, M.J., Cain, M., and Lee, M. (2015). THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827-838