Foam rollers are a powerful therapeutic tool that you can use at home to maintain optimal physical health.
The idea is simple enough: Using your own body weight and agility, you roll specific muscle groups against a firm foam roller to mimic a deep, gliding massage.
With a foam roller, you can control how much pressure you apply to the tissues you’re working on, and you can locate and focus on areas that are problematic.
Foam rolling is a perfect adjunct to soft tissue therapies like deep tissue massage, myofascial rolling, and active release technique (ART). And because you can use a foam roller just about anywhere, you can experience terrific health gains in a relatively short period of time.
The main benefits of foam rolling include the following:
- Improved blood circulation throughout your skin, fascia, muscles, and even tendons and ligaments where you can access them with a foam roller.
- Better cellular function through improved blood circulation, more efficient exchange of nutrients and waste products at a cellular level, leading to better overall cellular function and intercellular communication.
- Lengthening of short (tight) muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Some muscles (like hip flexors) and ligaments (like the iliotibial band, which runs along your outer thigh from pelvis to knee) are prone to shortening, and are difficult to effectively stretch and apply therapeutic pressure to using standard massage and trigger point therapy techniques. But with a foam roller, you can apply deep pressure massage to such areas and lengthen shortened tissues, thereby preventing physical imbalances that can predispose you to injury.
- Promotion of optimal spinal range of motion. You can accomplish this by slowly rolling your spine against a foam roller and pausing whenever you feel restrictions to allow your joints and surrounding tissues to stretch.
- Better posture, stronger core. Beyond using a foam roller as a therapeutic tool, you can also use it for a variety of exercises. It’s especially useful for a number of core-strengthening and stabilizing postures and movements.
Effective DIY Pain Relief
When we experience physical health challenges like pain and stiffness around weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and spinal joints), for many of us, the instinct is to get some sort of treatment—if not a conventional painkiller or some invasive surgical procedure, then at least some alternative therapy like acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, ultrasound, laser, or electrical stimulation.
A less obvious and often more effective approach is to work at improving blood circulation around the problematic area through deep pressure work and dedicating oneself to stretching the muscles and ligaments around the affected joints.
Sometimes, short and tight muscles and ligaments are the root cause of a joint region becoming dysfunctional and producing pain and stiffness.
This is not to say that various therapies can’t be helpful; they can usually help in some way, though to what degree depends on the individual situation.
My point is that you can also address physical injuries and breakdowns with a dedicated program of soft tissue work and stretching—which you do multiple times daily on your own. I’ve found time and again with my patients that actively working to address physical health challenges in this way can be the magic bullet that many often seek when they’re physically distressed.
It makes sense, doesn’t it, that you’ll make more gains by working on a problematic area several times a day than you would with just one, two, or three treatment sessions per week.
Of course, it may be ideal to have both going on when you have an injury, with the work you do on your own supporting the work of a skilled and experienced health practitioner.
Bottom line: Foam rolling can be a huge part of any effective program of self-applied deep pressure work and stretching.
What Kind to Use
Some foam rollers are softer, others are harder. I had some custom made to provide an optimal balance of firmness and comfort for all major muscle and ligament groups.
But please keep in mind that the amount of pressure that is used on any given area is mostly controlled by the amount of pressure you allow your body and gravity to exert.
If you find that you can’t access short/tight areas (like the Achilles tendon, soleus muscle, and wrist flexors and extensors) with a conventional foam roller, you may benefit from using a hand-held roller.
So give it a go. I trust that it will lead to good things.
Dr. Ben Kim is a chiropractor and acupuncturist in Canada whose primary interest is sharing resources and ideas on self health care. He can be reached via his website, DrBenKim.com