Myofascial Release and Foam Rollers
What Does Myofascial Mean?
Beneath your skin, each muscle, blood vessel, nerve and organ are connected with a translucent wrap of fascia, a dense web of organic threads that covers and penetrates each component, much like the membrane of an orange. The fascia is designed to help you move smoothly without friction.
“Myo” refers to muscles. When you feel muscle irritation, it could be due to fascial restrictions, which cause areas of tightness and irritation. Myofascial restrictions can create tensile pressure up to 2,000 pounds per square inch, causing pain and immobility.
Often, diagnostic tools like CAT scans, x-rays and myelograms cannot detect these fascial restrictions, and your doctor may not be able to pinpoint the cause of your pain. Nevertheless, it is real and you can take steps to relieve it.
What Causes Myofascial Restriction?
The most common causes of myofascial restriction are trauma, inflammation, and scarring from surgery. A blow, muscle strain, a torn tendon or a twisted joint can also cause myofascial restriction. Injuries sustained from a fall may also be at fault.
According to the National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists, some the other causes for myofascial restriction and pain include:
- Repetitive motion, such as typing and hammering
- Sustained heavy lifting, such as moving furniture or carrying a toddler
- Chronically poor posture due to inactivity or sitting all day in a non-ergonomic chair
- Continuous muscle clenching due to stress
- Long-term bed rest
What is Myofascial Release?Minimally invasive massage of these restricted and sore areas beneath the skin (also called trigger points or hot spots), helps to release the points of restriction where tensile pressure builds. Physical therapists rely on such tools as foam rollers or balls to ease hot spots. Firm, repeated rolling across your sore areas typically provides relief. The goal is to produce a shear between fascial planes that are bonded together, causing restriction of movement and pain.
How Does Self-Myofascial Release Work?
If advised by your healthcare professional, you can practice self-myofascial release (SMR) with good results. Foam rolling, when done correctly, not only eases hot spots, but also provides therapeutic benefits to your other tissues. For scientific studies that show the effectiveness of foam rolling, click here.
When you foam roll with appropriate pressure, you compress the muscle and epithelial tissues, which release fluids like a sponge. When you remove this pressure, the tissues rebound, taking up the fluids to complete a healthful flushing action.
With SMR, the manual pressure and stretching helps free up myofascial constrictions – meaning the restricted areas get loosened up – and this indirectly reduces pain. Massage with rollers or balls also stimulates sensation in tissues that you may not usually "hear" from – sometimes called areas of sensori-motor amnesia. Many professionals consider rolling these areas to be an important part of a stimulating massage.
You can tell that your SMR technique is effective if you feel a mild burning in the areas you are working on. As long as the sensations you awaken remain on the tolerable end of the pain spectrum, your rolling massage remains therapeutic, but experts like Tom Myers of Anatomy Trains caution against rolling past the point of pain.
“Rolling can certainly be ‘sensationful.’ This is a negative if it is so painful it causes muscle contraction and cellular retraction, so I am not a fan of painful rolling. I prefer my clients stay in the pleasurable realm.”
Be sure to listen to the directions that your healthcare professional provides, as this will be based on your situation. The amount of pain felt also relates to the density of your foam roller.
How is SMR Beneficial to My Overall Health?SMR benefits your overall health in a number of ways:
- Improves flexibility
- Reduces the risk of injuries
- Relieves muscle tightness
- Increases blood flow throughout your tissues
- Reduces soreness following workouts
- Eases stress on your joints
- Maintains muscle balance
- Improves range of motion
For more information, check out this article on studies involving foam rollers.
What are the SMR Techniques?Gentle but sustained pressure with a roller or ball across the affected areas of your body is the best approach to SMR. When doing this form of self-therapy, remember to:
- Move slowly and steadily. Envision squeezing a sponge thoroughly as you roll across the painful area, letting it plump back up and then squeezing it again.
- On larger, hard to reach places, hold the roller still and move your body over it. This technique exerts maximum pressure on the restricted areas for optimum results. Do not continue rolling if you feel pain.
- Roll other areas of your body along with the sore spots. You will find that you get better results when you vary your rolling routine from session to session.
Getting into other healthy habits will increase the benefits of SMR. Eat a balanced diet, and get the rest your body needs. The healthier you are, the better you will respond to therapy. Many people foam roll prior to every workout to maintain freedom of movement and prevent muscle pain.