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Foam roller syndrome

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Foam roller syndrome ( FRS) is not fatal but is more common than you think.  A trained practitioner or an average athlete may show signs of FRS but may be completely unaware. Perhaps you’re an ATC or PT who takes short cuts and instructs their clients to use a foam roller without assessing them. Or, maybe your an athlete who uses foam rollers to the point of tears. Even worse, maybe your the gym guru suffering from chronic pain evoking the praises of  foam rolling for everything! These are all signs and symptoms of FRS.


Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR) and much of what we know about foam rolling and SMR is anecdotal. There are hypotheses based upon cellular and neurological activity but we really don’t know what’s occurring.  Some suggest the fascia is changing. Others believe scar tissue is being broken down, or trigger points are released. Regardless of your view, SMR (or whatever you want to call it) seems to help but not for everything or everyone.

Unfortunately, for many the foam roller has become a panacea in injury recovery and performance. One reason is due to it’s convenience.  The genius behind foam rolling is it’s simplicity.  However, because it is so simple and convenient many people are using foam rollers without understanding why, how or where to use them. Furthermore, without assessing many foam roller users are unaware if the techniques are even effective.  While foam rollers have progressed into softer, firmer, smaller and bumpier products the techniques, protocols and processes have evolved slowly for SMR.

It seems the no pain-no gain technique is a standard protocol for foam rolling and SMR. “It’s supposed to hurt” I heard one personal trainer tell her client who was in obvious pain. Some discomfort is involved with SMR but the goal is NOT to mash the tissue while enduring extreme pain. In addition, rolling on foam rollers may not be suitable for those with neck, shoulder, wrist or back pain. We also recommend not starting on a foam roller but progressing to one because many cannot tolerate some techniques like the iliotibial band roll.  We suggest that our clients start with rolling a tennis ball over the affected area, progress to a harder ball and eventually a foam roller.

Many practitioners agree that SMR is not for everyone or everything but can be helpful when used correctly. Specific SMR exercises are recommended to clients after a therapist completes the initial assessment. In addition, other mobility and stability exercises are included. Unfortunately, the value of the assessment and other therapeutic exercises have been lost on some foam roller advocates.

If you know someone or if you are suffering from FRS there is hope. Foam rollers can be useful to many but understand why you are foam rolling a particular area, perhaps there is a more appropriate way to accomplish the same goal. Finally, remember foam rolling is not the only SMR technique and is only one part of the recovery matrix.

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