What About Foam Rolling?

Many claims are out there when it comes to the use of foam rollers, balls, and similar tools. Especially its many health and performance benefits. But what does the research say? Here, I discuss a few of the claims and what the science says about it.

 

When we want something to work it has an interesting way of changing our models of explanation. Our own biases takes over and starts to influence the way we describe things. This is something I believe has happened to the topic of foam rolling.

 

It feels, therefore it must work

Whether you are a "no pain no gain" person or the "feels good" person, many of us are "feel-junkies" in some way. A sensation usually gets interpreted as a feedback that must mean something good. This is a common thought among every other "self-massager". But sensation doesn't necessarily equal a positive or negative effect on our body.

  

Remodelling fascia?

A common explanation is that tissues gets "remodelled" when using foam rollers. There are many studies that has explored the mechanical load impact on human tissues. Especially when it comes to external force such as manual therapy or self-massage tools. It has shown that the forces needed to "remodel" for example fascia are too great than a human can achieve. There may still be an experience of a change in the tissue. Most likely this has to do with changes in muscle tone that are controlled by the nervous system. (Schleip, 2003).

 

Trigger points & myofascia

Another common idea is that you through self-massaging tools can stimulate trigger points. And in that way you can treat myofascial pain syndrome. There's a problem with that statement though. A review by Quinter et al. (2016) shows that there's nothing supporting the claim of this trigger point phenomenon.

 

Foam rolling as a recovery tool

Recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is crucial when it comes to performance. Foam rolling and roller massage (RM) has been proposed as a method to stimulate recovery. Especially for muscle strength and joint flexibility. Although the mechanisms are still very unclear. A study by Casanova et.al. (2017) came to the conclusion that RM didn't have any effect other than on pain pressure threshold.

 

What does this mean?

There seems to be not much supporting the claim of "remodelling" fascia or the trigger point phenomenon.

It seems like RM could create a "time-window" of lowered pain levels both local and global. This could probably be used to some extent for different purposes. To what isn’t studied.

Of course, the last word on foam rolling and similar methods hasn’t been said. Although, there's not evidence that holds up to all the claimed benefits.

 


References

Casanova N, et.al. (2017): Effects of roller massager on muscle recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage. Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2017.1280609

Schleip R. (2003). Fascial plasticity – a new neurobiological explanation: Part 1. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Volume 7, Issue 1, 11-19. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1360-8592(02)00067-0

Quinter J L, Bove G M, Cohen M L. (2016). A critical evaluation of Quintner et al: missing the point.  J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015 Apr;19(2):193-204. DOI: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.01.009