Foam rollers — which you’ve likely seen at the gym or in athletic stores — have been in the news quite a bit recently. The New York Times examined the sudden success of a $365 foam roller (yes, you read that right!), and reporters at National Public Radio looked at claims that foam rollers can help relieve back pain. But are these rollers actually helpful? After all, if you were to buy every item on the market that claimed to cure pain, you’d end up with an empty checking account and a lot of products that produced dubious results. Let’s take a closer look.
First, what exactly are these rollers? Though they vary in size, texture, and material, the basic idea is the same. You lie on your back with roller positioned beneath you, then slide your body back and forth over the roller so that it more or less massages your back. Trainers or yoga instructors often recommend foam rollers to help release tension in the back.
According to the researchers interviewed by NPR, foam rollers can help relieve back pain to an extent. The rollers are about as effective at reducing pain as a low-intensity massage. However, you should keep in mind that the medical benefit of massage is hardly clear-cut. Both foam rollers and massage tend to be effective at helping patients feel better for a period of time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they provide a long-term benefit. Similarly, while foam rollers can help users recover more quickly from exercise and even increase their range of motion, it’s also uncertain whether they provide athletes with any kind of lasting performance benefit.
To get any benefit from a foam roller, your best bet is to work with a trainer or physical therapist. This is especially true if you are hoping to use it to relieve back pain. The NPR report notes that because lumbar pain often doesn’t actually originate in the lower back, it’s possible to cause damage by overzealously trying to relieve muscle tension in muscles that aren’t actually tense. That kind of caveat is the main reason you want to work with an expert: You don’t want to exacerbate your pain by using a device like a foam roller incorrectly. The usual way to utilize a foam roller is to lightly massage yourself with the roller until you find a tense muscle group. Focus on that spot for about thirty seconds, or until the tension starts to go away, then perform a stretch that complements those muscle groups.
It’s probably unwise to drop $365 on a foam roller, but if you work with a physical therapist or trainer, it’s may be worth asking if he or she believes it could help relieve your pain. If you find that you need to use a device like a foam roller every day, you should look into a longer-term solution for pain management. The first step is making sure you have a proper diagnosis. Call the Spine Institute Northwest today at 206-496-0630 to learn more and set up a consultation with one of our physicians.