Ever wonder why people spend time rolling around the floor atop weird rubber cylindrical objects? There is a reason why, and we'll get to that. First let me give you some foundational information:
It's interesting that there is little to no evidence on what benefit, if any, foam rolling has for our bodies. Most people might assume foam rolling works to change, move, and/or hydrate the fascia. I get it, fascia is a real big buzz word, and a lot of techniques / modalities claim to alter the structure or state of our fascia.
I question the validity of those claims...
Let that sink in for a moment.. That's practically blasphemy for a massage therapist.
Fascia is strong stuff. If it changed structure, "melted," or lengthened every time we sustained a little pressure we'd be delicate little creatures. We'd also all be really careful of where we sat down. Unless you wanted to continually lengthen your connective tissue with all that sustained pressure!
So, what if we don't buy this premise? What are we doing?
Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control
When you feel the need to adjust the position of your glutes while sitting, it's likely because nociceptors are sending information about too much sustained pressure in one place. Simply put, nociceptors send that information from your butt, to your spinal cord. The spinal cord gets to decide whether or not this message gets sent up to the boss (our brain), or if the boss shouldn't be bothered with such trivialities. Whether the signal makes it further depends on a lot of factors.
Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control is one of several ways the brain modulates nociception (danger signals in the body) by preventing them from moving up the spinal cord into the brain. Pain expert Lorimer Moseley views descending modulation and DNIC as a way for the brain to “second-guess” the periphery about the threat posed by a particular stimulus.
(There is research that shows chronic pain conditions, including fibromylagia, may be a failure of the DNIC mechanism).
I'll give you an example:
DNIC is triggered by sustained nociceptive input. You could for example add a cold stimulus by dipping your hand in ice water. Not only would this input change pain in your hand, but if your knee hurt for example, it would also tone down pain there.
The foam roller is our ice water.
This mechanism is also known as "Counter-Irritation" a term I personally prefer because it sounds less complicated. Add an input like ice water, massage, or foam rolling and it will not only tone down pain in the area worked, but also has a full body benefit.
But wait! There's more!
These effects can be increased drastically by two factors: Novelty, and expectation.
Novelty just means something new. The brain digs that. Especially when it comes to movement. It's a great way to feed new information and clarify some fuzzy, or missing info.
What I mean by expectation is, what do you expect to happen when you foam roll?
In this interesting study, researchers immersed the hands of participants in cold water, shocked them with an electric blast to the sural nerve, and then measured the level of nociceptive activity in the spine, as well as the self-reported pain level. Importantly, the participants were divided into two groups. The first group, called the “analgesia group”, was told that the cold water immersion would reduce the amount of pain they felt from the shock. The other group, called the “hyperalgesia group” was told the opposite – that the cold water immersion would make the pain worse.
The analgesia group experienced 77% less pain, and less spinal cord nociceptive activity than the hyperalgesia group, who experienced almost no reductions in pain, or spinal cord nociceptive activity. In other words, expectation of relief was a huge factor in determining whether DNIC worked.
When you foam roll you should probably know it's therapeutic, and not hurting you. The brain then accesses it's natural drug cabinet to release very potent chemicals in order to stop your pain (DNIC).
The foam roller is likely novel input, but the more you use it the more you may need to change it up. Add more pressure for example.
Important note: the effects are temporary. It shouldn't be your only plan to address pain or tension.
There are other explanations as to why foam rolling may work. This article provides just one of them.
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