Self-Care Challenge (Day 138): Using a Foam Roller

gray foam roller

On day 138 of my 366-day self-care challenge, I explored using a foam roller* to release tightened up muscles.

A couple of years ago, I underwent physical therapy for a partial tear in my shoulder. I’m still not quite sure what caused the injury. Whether it was related to sitting behind my computer for so many hours, working in the yard, or trying to prove that I could still do a cartwheel at the tender age of 37, I still don’t know.

Prior to the injury, I had never used a foam roller. But after being encouraged by my orthopedic doctor, I learned that several stretches could help improve my range of motion (the degree to which joints move), and I was surprised by how much it helped.

The concept of foam rolling began in the 80’s, but the practice has become more mainstream in recent years. Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release, a technique that applies pressure to soft tissue to loosen connective tissue–or “knots,” as we sometimes call them.

But a word of caution: don’t just whip out your foam roller and waller around on the floor with it. Learn some proper techniques first. Likewise, it’s also important to fully understand the source of your pain, which may require a medical evaluation. In some cases, foam rolling could do more damage to injured areas.

Despite the popularity of foam rolling, there’s not a lot of research to support the effectiveness of the practice. A study that was published in 2015, which included just 8 college-aged, male subjects who were classified as moderately to very physically active, concluded that foam rolling was effective in reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — the pain you feel a day or so after an intense workout. Also in 2015, a systematic review of the research (14 articles that included a total of 260 subjects) found that foam rolling may improve short-term range of motion.

Even so, foam rolling does appear to provide health benefits for some. But before you begin using it, be sure to learn the proper techniques and listen to your body, making adjustments as needed.

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