Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend of utilizing massage tools to work on tight muscles and stiffness. Almost always, you can enter a gym and see people rolling out their IT bands or calfs with a foam roller. But why? When really needed, it hurts…bad. Usually though, when all is said and done, you feel better than before, and it seems worth the suffering.
Most of us are not elite athletes and probably will never be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be physically fit and strong. Most of us carry full-time jobs, which usually means sitting in front of a computer at a desk all day. When sitting in these prolonged positions, there are subtle changes that happen over time. Muscles will have a tendency to tighten up, including the hip flexors and hamstrings, due to the shortened position of the muscle. The joints get used to being in those specific positions and the ligaments and joint capsules tighten. Your body is adaptable, and when it is in positions for extended periods of time it will adapt to that position and stabilize by increasing neurological control and adhesions in those positions. In a lot of ways these adhesions are functional in those positions. They can make you more efficient. It does reek havoc on your functional mobility though.
Tight muscles and adhesions can lead to movement dysfunctions and injury. By limiting the joints’ ability to move in its full range of motion, adhesions and tight muscles alter the mechanics of the joint, which set you up for high risk of injury.
The foam roller does many things, but I like to think of it as a tissue mobilizer. It stretches tissue in all directions by pressing into the muscle deforming it over the roller. When adhesions have been formed, the roller will tend to stretch them out, usually with a lot of pain and irritation. I do not like to have patients work into pain, so I usually advise to try it for a few minutes and then move around. If you feel improvement then, it seems safe to continue with it.
Stretching only works on the tissue in one dimension–the focus is to primarily lengthen the muscle. Foam rolling will also achieve the same lengthening, but also gets mobility in all three dimensions. In many ways, the foam roller is superior as a body maintenance tool to improve tissue mobility, but I would like to think foam rolling first and then stretching is the ticket.
-Rajesh Khemraj, PT, OCS, COMT, FAAOMPT
Clinical Faculty Instructor at The North American Institute of Orthopaedic Manual Therapy
About the Author
Rajesh is a Physical Therapist, who is passionate about health and wellness. He is interested in all aspects of general well being including fitness, nutrition and mindfulness. He continues to learn and grow from the profession he loves.
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