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The Facts of Self-myofascial Release

Self-myofascial release (SMFR) is a form of self-manual therapy, most commonly performed with a foam roller. This tool is commonly found in use in gyms around the world and used daily by athletes both professional and recreational. I bet everyone reading this right now has used theses implements when they have been feeling sore or in pain. For those who are unfamiliar with this ritual, foam rolling involves lying on the ground, with a cylindrical foam roller placed between the body and the ground and rolling back and forth over it. People are motivated to use this form many reasons: improved range of motion, decreased soreness, someone told them to do it, improved self of well being, it’s the cool thing to do. But what it is actually accomplishing and how? Let’s see what the research says:

Effects on Flexibility:

Twelved out of 15 studies found foam rolling significantly increase flexibility in the short term. This is very good evidence that foam rolling is actually doing this. The key here is understanding how long it lasts for. Most studies found these effects to last 10 minutes or less.

Three out of five studies showed improvement in long term flexibility when applied consistently for longer than 2 weeks. The results of these studies were not as significant as the short term effects on flexibility and effects were similar to stretching. The research gives it a: maybe it’s helpful long term. What is tricky is that there are a lot of factors that determine long term flexibility, foam rolling might be helping to improve one of them.

Overall, it is well established that SMFR will increase flexibility in the short term but the effects on long term flexibility is not quite a well established.

How does foam rolling improve flexibility?

For the people who ask “how is this happening foam rolling helping flexibilty?” there are several proposed mechanisms (read as a bunch of theories) that researchers have investigated. None have been concretely confirmed but the front runners are:

  • increased fluid transport to local areas of dehydrated fascia (fascia is more flexible when hydrated).
  • relaxation of the nerves that control muscle tone which allow for increased tolerance of stretching.

It’s also important to note what it doesn’t do. It has been rejected that foam rolling improves flexibility by breaking down pathological adhesions (read as myofascial adhesion or scar tissue build up that decreases range of motion), among other less well know theories. According to researchers if foam rolling was effective at breaking down adhesion the long term improvements in flexibility would be stronger because removal of adhesion is permanent.

Effects on Soreness:

Three out of four studies found that foam rolling decreases the perception of soreness in the days after training. This is pretty good evidence that this is actually happening. This is important because athletes who feel less pain are more likely to train, and train more effectively, which over time will lead to more athleticism. It is important to clarify foam rolling decreases general muscles soreness, NOT focal joint pain. In practice we see athletes rubbing their painful joints with foam rollers and lacrosse balls. There is no evidence that support this practice.

How does it decrease soreness?

Similar to flexibility, the reason why this is happening is not clear. The front runners are:

  • Release of oxytocin ( a hormone) which inhibits pain fibers. It should be noted that oxytocin is related to pair bonding in prairie dogs (read as they have one sexual partner for their entire life). It is theorized to have a similar effect in humans and results in monogamous relationships. This could account for the relationship some people have with their foam roller. Just saying.
  • Activation of mechanoreceptors (other nerve endings) that over-ride the pain input. Movement has shown to have a similar effect as foam rolling in this realm.

Effects on athletic performance:

In seven different studies it has shown that foam rolling does not improve or decrease muscular contraction in various forms. It has been stated in the literature that foam rollins is superior to static stretching as both increase range of motion in the short term, neither improve athletic performance and static stretching has a detrimental effect on force production.

Other effects:

Multiple studies have shown that foam rolling does have a positive impact on markers of improved parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system activity. The inference here is that it can help your body return to a more relaxed state after a “fight or flight” activity, such as intense exercise.

Conclusion and other thoughts:

Here at The Active Life we believe that when the treatment fits the diagnosis results will be achieved. 

It is clear in the literature that foam rolling will:

improve your range of motion for 10 minutes

Decrease the amount of general soreness you feel the days after a strenuous work out

Help your body return to a more relaxed state after training. 

These are all beneficial for most athletes. If those are things that you need, the research supports you’re doing the right thing.

On the other hand, if you are foam rolling to:

Treat acute or chronic joint pain

Wear down adhesion

Acutely improve athletic performance

Improve range for more than 10 minutes

Then research does not support your claims. If you’re upset with these claims and you’re experiencing an emotion similar to someone kicking your dog, child or partner, you could be suffering from an oxytocin induced feeling of pair bonding to your foam roller. It’s ok, it might be a tough break up, but you’ll be better off in the long term: you’ll get to the root of your dysfunction.

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