It seems to me that we live in a highly medicated society. At 42, I still consider myself fairly young and aside from a multivitamin or an occasional Advil when I do something really stupid, I tend to live a rather drug-free life. Not so with a lot of people I know who are my age or older.
Now I realize that with aging, people are going to develop more medical conditions that require various types of medicines to either counteract the effects, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, but the number of people that I know that will pop a pill at the slightest sense of pain staggers me. When there’s a little back pain, you pop a pill. If your knee hurts, you pop another pill. Can’t get to sleep, you pop another pill. Let me tell you, the South American drug trade has nothing on the American medical profession when it comes to drugs.
Now again, I understand that there are some very severe medical conditions out there that could cause death if not treated with proper medicines, but if you are dealing with simple aches and pains and are otherwise healthy, there are a few alternatives to popping a couple of pills every time something starts to hurt. One of my favorites is Self Myofascial Release, otherwise known as Foam Rolling.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of foam rolling, let’s talk about what causes general muscle and joint pain. Over the course of our lives we each develop certain movement patterns to reflect our lifestyles and our activities. The best example I can think of is your typical office worker. If you know anyone who works in an office a lot you might notice that their shoulders are rounded forward a bit, their head tends to lean forward and their upper back might be somewhat more rounded than an average person whose career choice is much more active. These are adaptations that occur over time to meet the activities of the individual, such as sitting in front of a computer screen for 8 hours a day. Certain muscles relax while other muscles tighten up so that the body can adapt the ideal posture for the given task.
Aside from the postural issues that obviously arise from this, these adaptations also causes muscle imbalances. The muscles in question are not exacting equalizing pressures on the joints which can cause pain. I know a lot of people who get knee pain, but the doctors who have examined them can find nothing wrong. This can often be caused by a muscle imbalance, say between the quadriceps (front of the thigh) and the hamstrings (back of the thigh). One of the muscle groups is either much stronger than it should be or much weaker. This causes abnormal stress at the joint which can manifest as pain and eventually lead to injury.
These imbalances can be caused by muscle tightness. Tightness generally means that the muscle fibers are overactive for some reason or another. Sometimes a muscle will be tight because it is used too much. Other times a muscle will tighten up because it isn’t used enough. Sound weird? Let me explain. If a certain level of strength is not maintained in a muscle through its full range of motion, the muscle will tighten to a point where it will be difficult for it to open up fully. Think of squatting. How deep can you squat? Some people can drop all the way down and literally touch the floor with their behinds while some people can’t get any lower than parallel without losing their balance. The latter is an indication of weak glutes that have tightened up to prevent the individual from going into a range of motion where the muscle has no strength and no stability. Go deeper and you’ll either compensate in some way or fall.
Interestingly enough, when a muscle is incapable of going through its full range of motion, other muscles have to pick up the slack. These could be muscles which are meant to do other things or are not meant to carry the load. In the case above with the weak glutes, the hamstrings generally kick in. The hamstrings only have about one half to two thirds the strength of the quads while the glutes are among the most powerful muscles in the body. Weak glutes means overworked hamstrings. Overworked hamstrings lead to injury.
Tight muscles such as the glutes don’t have to cause injury to cause pain though. As mentioned above, when a tight muscle doesn’t do its job, other muscles pick up the slack. When these other muscles do that, again they may be handling stresses they weren’t designed for. Overall this leads to pain either localized in the muscle in question or referred to some other area. These types of nagging little muscle aches are why so many people pop pain relievers on a daily basis.
This is where Foam Rolling comes in. Foam Rolling is one type of Self Myofascial Release; a type of self treatment similar to massage that helps to relax tight muscles and return the body to a state of equilibrium. Foam rolling works by applying bodyweight pressure to certain areas of the body using a foam roller or similar tool. Inside the muscle are small sensory receptors called Golgi Tendon Organs, or GTO. The GTO sense pressure and communicate that information to the spinal cord and brain. When the pressure or force within the muscle becomes too great, the brain sends a message to the muscle to relax, as part of a safety mechanism. As mentioned above, foam rolling applies bodyweight pressure to the muscles, which is usually enough to eventually cause the muscle to relax.
There are many areas of the body that can be foam rolled. The major ones include, but are not limited to, the Quadriceps, Hamstrings, IT Band, Adductors, Gluteus Medius, Piriformis, Claves, Peroneals, Tensor Fascia Latae, Quadratus Lumborum, Lats and Upper Back. When rolling out an area that is tight, you might experience some unpleasant tenderness. Generally speaking, the more tender and area is, the more it needs to be rolled out. When determining the areas to focus on with a client, I generally use a rating system from 1 to 10. 1 being little or no discomfort, while 10 is so tender it can barely be tolerated.
When rolling out an area, you generally want to stay on soft tissue and not roll on to bone. Roll the entire length of the muscle in a slow, controlled manner. If you find an area that is extremely tender, pause on that area until the tenderness reduces 50-75 percent. Complete about 10 rolls up and down before moving on to the other side of the body or the next muscle group. (See photos above for proper techniques.)
Foam rolling alone is an excellent way to relieve pain in the muscles, but it can also be used before and after exercise. I personally feel it is an excellent thing to do before training, particularly weight training since it relaxes muscles and opens up range of motion in the tissue. This helps to prevent compensations during certain lifting maneuvers which could eventually result in injury. It is also an excellent way to cool down after an intense workout as it relaxes muscles and tends to reduce soreness.
It should be noted though that for extreme cases such as severe postural issues or in injury rehabilitation that foam rolling is only one small part of a comprehensive program to help in the corrective or healing process. If you are currently recovering from an injury or similar physical issue, I highly recommend you speak to a physical therapist or a personal trainer experienced in Corrective Exercise about a more comprehensive approach to addressing your individual issues.
Foam rollers are readily available at most sporting good stores, but I personally recommend going to a specialty store such as Relax the Back in Torrance. You’ll probably end up paying a little more, but the roller will last longer and will not deform. Also, the customer service personnel can help you determine which roller is best for you.
Foam rolling has definitely made a difference in my life, not only in my flexibility levels but also in helping me eliminate a lot of unnecessary muscle pain. I sleep better and night and generally have an overall sense of well being after I finish. I highly urge anyone dealing with muscle or joint pain to try it. Who knows—before you know it you might start doing a lot more moving and shaking and a lot less moaning and groaning.