Ever wonder why people in the gym spend time before and after their workout rolling around on the floor on top of some sort of cylindrical device? There is a reason why, and we'll get to that soon. First, a little foundational information:
The interesting bit is 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 the fascia. I get it, fascia is a real big buzz word lately and a lot of techniques / modalities claim to alter the structure of our fascia.
- I personally question the validity of those claims. -
Let that sink in for a moment. A massage therapist who says that is basically blaspheming. 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 muscles with all that sustained pressure!
So if we're not altering the structure of the fascia what are we doing?
Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control
At this point it wouldn't be a bad idea to refer to my previous blog post for a little more information about proprioception and the brain.
I'll explain a little more in detail here. DNIC 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 craves this. Especially when it comes to movement. It's a great way to feed new information and re-write some maps (again see my previous blog article).
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 in the leg 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 need to know it's therapeutic and not hurting you. The brain can then allow the natural drug cabinet it contains to release very potent substances to stop your pain. The foam roller is probably already pretty novel to your brain, but the more you use it the more pressure you may need (as one example) to create more novelty.
Also, an important note: the effects are temporary. Studies show that foam rolling is great at increasing range of motion temporarily as well. On the other hand, studies on stretching tend to show increased range of motion, but is also reduction in strength & power. Might be something to keep in mind!
There are other explanations as to why foam rolling works. I'm providing but one (albeit, the most convincing) argument as to why.