Foam Rollers and Myofascial Deformation: What to Know Before You Roll



Foam rollers for relief of muscle pain and tightness have enjoyed great popularity over the past decade or so as therapeutic devices for fitness, sports and rehab. However, as with any popular devise or training aid, they are sometimes used inappropriately, and in some cases the use of form rollers can do more harm than good.


The Premise Behind Foam Rollers


The use of foam rollers is based on the idea that fascia, the elastic web of fibrous tissue that surrounds muscles throughout the body, can become excessively thick and tight, inhibiting movement. Proponents of myofascial release assert that by applying pressure to the fascia by rolling a foam device beneath body’s weight, users are able to stretch the fascia and break down excessively thick collagen layers. In theory, the fascia becomes thinner and more elastic, and excess collagen is reabsorbed by the body.


While the theory behind myofascial deformation may seem to make sense, it has significant shortcomings and numerous critics. Fascial tissue, made up of collagen, is extremely tough, with a tensile strength greater than steel, and mechanical deformation would require the application of extreme forces. In fact, a 2008 study by Chaudry et al. revealed that fascia is much too tough to “release” using foam rollers or other therapeutic pressure techniques aimed at remodeling it.


Other studies (MacDonald 2013; Halperin 2014; Jay 2014; Skarabot 2015) investigated whether foam rolling improves flexibility and range of motion more than traditional static stretching. They found that any changes in flexibility were temporary, lasting 10 minutes or less after treatment, and that foam rolling offered no long-term improvements in flexibility.


Benefits of Foam Rolling


Despite their failure to alter the density or elasticity of fascia, foam rollers have been shown to offer some benefits.


  • Increased blood flow to fascia and muscle tissue, enhancing tissues’ ability to heal
  • Improved transport of fluid that carries nutrients into tissues and removes cellular debris
  • Reduction of perceived delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise due to increased fluid transport and removal of byproducts of cellular metabolism


Trigger Points and Myofascial Deformation


Muscle knots, also called myofascial trigger points, are tight areas within a muscle that form a bump or knot that produces local and referred pain, known as myofascial pain syndrome (MPS). Foam rollers are often proffered as a solution to muscle knots, with the idea that applied pressure can somehow break down collagen and flatten out knots, much like a rolling pin. However, given what we know about the resiliency of collagen, the idea of using foam rollers to eliminate muscle knots does not hold much water.


One therapy that has proven particularly effective for MPS is Extracorporeal Shock Wave Therapy, or ESWT. Shockwaves are sonic waves that elicit physiological reactions within muscle knots that reduce local muscle pain. Shockwave therapy appears to offer improved accuracy and higher therapeutic effectiveness than traditional pressure treatments for trigger points.


ESWT for Myofascial Pain Syndrome in NYC


The sports medicine professionals at NYDNRehab are experts in the area of MPS and its treatment. Using a multi-modal approach that includes manual therapy, exercise, stretching and ESWT, the team at NYDNRehab works with you on an individual basis to relieve pain, improve range of motion and enhance performance. If you are plagued by chronic muscle pain and limited range of motion, contact NYDNRehab today and see why we are the very best rehab clinic in NYC.


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