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How does foam rolling work?

How does foam rolling work? Foam rolling is a popular, well used and often prescribed treatment/management strategy for patients, athletes and just about anyone in pain. Is the amount of use and prescription justified? Before I dive into my views on foam rolling, I’d like to acknowledge I’m not an expert into pain science or the nervous system. My knowledge in this area is informed by experts in the area, along with my clinical experience over time. The myths? Have you been told before that foam rolling will release your muscles? Or lengthen your fascia (fascia is the coverings on our muscles)? Or perhaps that you have adhesions that the foam roller can help remove? They all sound plausible when told to you by a medical professional, however, there is no evidence behind them. Furthermore, these kind of recommendations can lead to you thinking and going about your management and rehabilitation the wrong way (in my view). So how does it work?

How does foam rolling work?

  • Low & limited evidence: The evidence for how foam rolling works is limited, however, as mentioned in the video and above, it is unlikely to change muscle or fascia make-up.

  • Nervous system modulation: What the foam rolling is likely to be able to do is give us a short term modulation of the nervous system. This leads to a pain reduction, causing a window of opportunity allowing more/greater/painfree movement. This nervous system modulation is thought to be through Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (DNIC).

  • For those interested in knowing more, read the article mentioned below.


What are the benefits of foam rolling?

  • Short term pain window: as discussed above, foam rolling will give you a short term window with less pain. This could be significant when considering a workout of training session. Example: Foam rolling may assist with less pain during a squat, allowing you to complete your session better, or with more weight.

  • Self management tool: those that have seen me in clinic, or read/listened to some of my videos/articles in the past will probably know that I’m a big believer in helping my patients & athletes to manage their own condition. The role of a good practitioner is to assist the patient in returning to full function, not to take over and run the show. The use of foam rolling gives the patient a method of completing “treatment” themselves, thus not relying on a therapist to deliver the treatment.

  • Useful tool for mobility exercises: I have personally found foam rollers an excellent tool to complete mobility exercises and drills. Examples include threading the needle, active cat-type stretches, thoracic extension, dynamic pec/chest opening stretches and more.

What is important to consider:

  • Foam rolling should be an adjunct to evidence-based exercise rehabilitation, education and load management. In my view, foam rolling should not become the main treatment tool.


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