The use of foam rollers for self treatment is gaining wide popularity. Foam rollers now come in many sizes and shapes but basically they are round rolls of high density foam approximately 6 inches in diameter in varying lengths. These rolls are used to provide a form of self massage to help in increasing flexibility, recovery from exercise and to aid in the recovery from injury.
The science behind the use of the foam roller is based in a form of soft tissue therapy called myofascial release. This technique relaxes shortened tight muscles as well as improving blood and lymphatic circulation. The technique targets a tissue called the fascia. Fascia is a component of connective tissue that provides support and protection for many structures in the human body including muscle tissue.
The term myofascial release is credited to Dr. Andrew Taylor Still who is considered the founder of Osteopathy. Osteopathic theory teaches that the soft tissues of the body can become restricted due to disease, overuse, trauma, infection or inactivity resulting in pain, muscle tension and diminished blood flow. The first medical practitioner to use the term myofascial treatment was Dr. Janet Travell. She is credited with first coining the term “myofascial trigger point” which refers to the knots that seem to develop in damaged muscle tissue.
The traditional treatment of muscle and soft tissue usually consists of a manual therapy practitioner such as a chiropractor, massage therapist or physiotherapist manipulating the tissues. Various forms of treatment include trigger point therapy, Rolfing, Shiatsu or Swedish massage, Active Release Technique, strain counter strain, assisted stretching and Graston. This is not an exhaustive list but represents many of the more popular techniques. In this model of myofascial release treatment the patient is being treated by the therapist and it is therefore referred to as passive treatment. The use of the foam roller is an active form of therapy meaning that the patient actively performs the therapy on themselves. Virtually all of the main muscles of the lower limb, upper limb and the torso can be worked using the various techniques that can be used with the foam roller. Most of the techniques involve positioning the body on top of the foam roller and utilizing the patients own body weight to provide the appropriate amount of pressure on the tissues being treated. Through various movement patterns utilizing the legs and arms the patient can manipulate the tissues being targeted with a combination of pressure and movement. As the patient rolls over the roller they will find areas of tenderness where they can maintain pressure until the muscle tissue begins to release the tension. It is widely recognized that utilization of a foam roller in this way can have similar beneficial effects as with deep tissue massage.
As the use of foam rollers has become more popular a variety of various foam rollers have been developed. They can be found in a variety of densities from more soft to greater density and firmness. People who are new to the use of a foam roller or those that have especially sore or sensitive areas should generally start with a softer roll. Some rollers have been developed with extra bumps and ridges on them for more aggressive treatment. Caution should be used when utilizing these harder and more aggressive rollers as, is the case with any form of therapy, it is possible to be too aggressive and end up doing more harm than good.
If this is a form of self treatment that you think might be beneficial for you it is advisable that you consult with a practitioner that is familiar with this tool. A chiropractor, physiotherapist or massage therapist would be an excellent place to start.