Exercise prescription is an important part of a physical therapy program and likewise, foam rollers are often a valuable piece of equipment in an exercise or rehabilitation program. Rollers can be used for many different purposes and can have positive effects not only on many different ailments but also on improving sports performance. Foam rollers are inexpensive, easy to use and are therefore well accepted by patients as well.
Foam rollers, sometimes called ‘frollers’, come in several different shapes and sizes. The most common is the 36″ long, 6″ round format. Other variations on shape and size include the half roll, which is a vertical half and therefore flat on one side, and the short roll which is half the length of the typical roll. The half roll is often used for less advanced exercises with the person gradually progressing to use the full roll. Often, less expensive foam rollers are less dense and have cells within the foam that can be crushed with prolonged use and therefore become less effective. It is worthwhile to spend a bit more money on a high-density foam roller as it will generally last much longer. For those interested in taking their foam rollers with them when on the road, or simply want something that takes up less space, there is a great product called the Travel Roller that takes up less space in a suitcase or in your home.
The Foam Roller for Massage and Self Myofascial Release
The most common purpose of the foam roll in exercise prescription is likely for the massage-like effects it can produce. This technique is often referred to as ‘self-myofascial release’ or SMR. To produce the effects of massage you usually use the foam roll in conjunction with your own body weight by lying on the foam roll with the affected muscles directly on top of the roll. By slowly rolling over the target area of the affected body part you are essentially massaging the muscle. By properly positioning yourself and moving on the roll in this way you can actually reach very deep muscle tissues. Conveniently, if you come across a point or points in the muscles that are particularly uncomfortable you know that this is an area that needs to be worked. By rolling over these tight ‘trigger points’ with your body weight you squeeze the muscles and in turn elongate the local muscle fibers. This elongation provides a local stretch that stimulates stretch receptors in the area; the golgi tendon organs. Stretching these receptors can result in a physiological effect called autogenic inhibition which produces a relaxation in the muscles. The deep tissue massage from the direct pressure of rolling over these trigger points also aids in the breakdown of fibrous scar tissue that can build up in injured or tight muscles. Breaking down this scar tissue will increase the flexibility and pliability of the muscle. The deep massage may also result in a localized increase in blood flow that will help to flush excess metabolites and toxins from the area. Using the foam roll to massage the tight areas of a muscles prior to doing your active muscles stretches significantly increases the benefit of your typical stretches. This is because stretching a muscle that has tight trigger points largely stretches the healthy muscles tissues that do not need to be stretched. By working out these trigger points, or ‘knots’, first, you can then more effectively stretch them with your traditional stretching exercises or your foam roll stretches. Don’t be surprised if you find differing amounts of trigger points on one side of the body relative to the other, or differing amounts of discomfort when rolling over the same point in a muscle but on the opposite side. This is indicative of muscle imbalances. We all have muscles imbalances to some degree. Regularly massaging out these trigger points with your foam roller will bring you closer to restoring the optimal balance in your muscles.