What’s the point of the cylindrical tube on the gym floor? And why do the people using such an innocent looking piece of equipment grimace so much? Read on to find out where the idea of the foam roller came from and whether there is any science to support the benefits its converts proclaim.
The foam roller is a cylindrical piece of foam that has become widely popular over the last few years. This article briefly covers the history of the foam roller – from its roots in traditional massage – to why it works and also introduces novel explanations as to why it does.
The history of foam rolling
Foam rolling is a form of manual therapy (that means using your hands)- almost like massage without the masseuse, so to appreciate where foam rolling comes from, it is important to delve into the origins of manual therapy.
Manual therapy can be traced to ancient civilisations in both India and China where it was used as a traditional medicine to treat a variety of medical problems.
Research suggests that the introduction of massage to Europe is attributed to Per Hendrik Ling, who in the early 19th century developed a systematic method of vigorous massage techniques to improve blood and lymph circulation. That said, Ling, is not thought to have been responsible for the widespread use of medical massage therapies. Instead, Dr Johann Mezger, a physician from Amsterdam is attributed with the first clinical use of massage therapy and was also the first person to look at massage from a scientific perspective; looking at the anatomy and physiology of massage. Mezger and his team also conducted many scientific experiments from the 1860s to the late 19th century to assess the effectiveness of massage.
The use of massage therapy as a medicine (as opposed to for relxation) declined after the Second World War due to the rise of innovations including the snappily titled ‘proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation’ (a form of stretching that physios and sports thherapists still use today), ultrasound and microwave techniques, that claimed to deliver similar results without the physical labour, time and cost associated with tissue massage.
Sports massage did not suffer the same drop off in popularity as medicinal massage. Nowadays medicinal massage is rarely used in Western medicine except in sports medicine and palliative care, although it is making a comeback in alternative and complementary medicine.
So, back to foam rolling, the new kid on the block. The earliest academically reported use of foam rolling can be traced back to the year 2000, when it was mentioned in academic literature as a form of manual therapy, used to alleviate tension and aid recovery from exercise.
From this point on, the use of foam rollers slowly began to appear in both academic and (more so) popular literature and their cult status continues to increase. In the past five years the use of the foam roller has exploded (not literally, unlike the also popular Swiss ball) and they can now been seen on pretty much every gym floor in the country.
There are, however, very few research studies that have looked at the effects of using a foam roller on the body.
How does it work? The Anatomy and Physiology of Massage and Self Massage
(Don’t be put off if some of the terms here are new to you… read on and I will explain them all.)
The point of foam rolling is to manipulate facia.
Fascia (scientifically known as dense irregular connective tissue) is a fibrous tissue that surrounds and connects every muscle, joint and organ of the body. There are three main types of fascia, based on their location in your body;
- Superficial fascia, basically found just underneath the skin
- Deep (or muscle) fascia, the dense fibrous connective tissue that penetrates and surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body
- Visceral fascia, this keeps your organs where they are meant to be and wraps them in connective tissue
The fascia predominantly effected by self massage and traditional massage (and therefore foam-rolling) is deep fascia.
[Extra sciencey bit…
Fascia has a similar makeup to ligaments and tendons, being made from tightly packed collagen fibres, elastin and an extra cellular matrix in a pattern roughly in the general direction of pull (meaning that the direction the fibres run in are the same direction as the likely forces that travel through it). Its main functions are to transmit pressure to and from the working muscles, and due to its high density of mechanoreceptors (literally meaning ‘movement sensors’), provide a sliding and gliding environment for muscles and provide a supportive and movable wrapping for nerves and blood vessels as they pass through and between the muscles.]
What does foam rolling do?
- A foam rolling session can increase the range of movement (ROM) at the joint where the roller has been applied (more specifically, at the joint across which the insertion point of the muscle sits).
- When the rolling lasts for more than 15 seconds, increases in joint ROM can be seen.
- After about 90 seconds you probably wont see any further benefit to ROM (based on published studies and my own undergraduate research).
Why does it work?
There are four reasons why this could be (although there hasn’t been enough research to prove or disprove these):
- Both the mechanical pressure and subsequent heat generation caused the fluid at the joint to become more runny (less viscous) therefore decreasing resistance that would otherwise be caused by friction.
- The muscles might relax because of the way ‘mechanoreceptors’ respond to being stimulated like this
- The direct pressure along the direction of muscular pull slightly re-aligns any collagen fibres from a more random to a more uniform direction, leading to increased compliance and less resistance.
- The direct pressure onto the muscle (which sits directly underneath the fascia) has shown a typical stretch response, meaning that after 15-30 seconds, the muscle would relax and increase the ROM.
Interestingly, studies show that foam rolling for less than 5 seconds actually decreases ROM.
The bottom line
Foam rolling for 5 – 90 seconds is probably good for you if you want to relax your muscles, but there isn’t much science out there to prove it. It’s a lot cheaper than a massage, you can do it every time you train, and even if we don’t know why it works it seems that it does. Do let me know what your own experiences have been…