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To roller or not to roller

What does foam rolling do?

Foam rolling is a form of self massage which helps to alleviate tightness or tension within muscles. There are many benefits of foam rolling on the body, such as:

  • It relaxes the nervous system
  • It breaks up ‘knots’ and adhesions
  • Improves joint range of motion without affecting muscle performance

 

Effects on the Nervous System

The pressure exerted by a roller causes an activation of nerves and fibres in muscles that help to regulate the nervous system, which may influence myofascial tone (Behm and Wilke, 2019.) It has also been suggested that these nerves may be associated with quick changes in heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, slow, sustained pressure during rolling may increase the relaxation response of the nervous system. However, the opposite may also be true, whereby rapid and vigorous rolling causes an increased excitatory response (Schleip, 2003.)

Other studies have found that foam rolling one area can cause effects across the whole body. For example, in Cheatham et al.’s study, participants who rolled their left leg, experienced increased range of motion and decreased pain in both legs (Cheatham et al., 2018.) This suggests that the nervous system must be impacted in some way, by rolling.

Breathing could also have an effect on the nervous system when rolling. Diaphragmatic breathing can engage the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system. Studies have found that slow, deep breathing whilst stretching reduces tension, pain and increases flexibility (Wongwilairat et al., 2018). Therefore, it would make sense that practicing slow, deep breathing whilst rolling may increase the overall effectiveness.

 

Foam Rolling Breaks up ‘Knots’ and Adhesions

Muscles should be able to slide pass each other without friction. However, postural and emotional stress can cause the muscles, fascia and other tissues to be unable to move as they should. This is due to the body laying down additional fibres between these previously mobile tissues. Months, years or even decades of this can cause a semi-permanent effect by thickening these tiny fibres. Over time, rolling may be able to reduce or eliminate these additional fibres (‘knots’ or adhesions.)

To prevent this from occurring, regular rolling should be used to maintain the movement between these surfaces.

 

Improves Joint Range of Motion without affecting Muscle Performance

Research suggests that foam rolling may offer short term benefits for increasing joint range of motion at the hip, knee and ankle without affecting muscle performance. For example, using a foam roller for 30 seconds to 1 minute over 2-5 sessions, may increase joint flexibility due to its short-term benefits. These range of motion changes may be due to the altered viscoelastic properties of the fascia and increases in muscle temperature and blood flow.

It is also suggested that short bouts of foam rolling (once for 30 seconds) to the leg before activity does not enhance or negatively affect muscle performance (Cheatham, Kolber, Cain and Lee, 2015).

 

References

Cheatham, S., Kolber, M., 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), pp.827-838.

Behm, D.G., & Wilke. J. (2019). Do self-myofascial release devices release myofascial? Rolling mechanisms: A narrative review. Sports Medicine. 

Cheatham, S.W., & Stull, K.R. (2018). Comparison of three different density type foam rollers on knee range of motion and pressure pain threshold: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 13(3), 474-482.

Schleip, R. (2003). Fascial plasticity – A new neurobiological explanation. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 7(1), 11-19.

Wongwilairat, K., Buranruk, O., Eungpinichpong, W., Puntumetakul, R., & Kantharadussadee-Triamchaisri, S. (2018). Muscle stretching with deep and slow breathing patterns: A pilot study for therapeutic development. Journal of Complementary Integrated Medicine, 16(2).

Stull, K., 2022. What Do Foam Rollers Do?. [online] Blog.nasm.org. Available at: <https://blog.nasm.org/foam-rolling-smr/what-do-foam-rollers-do> [Accessed 28 January 2022].

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