Foam rollers and roller massagers seem to be the hottest thing in rehab and recovery. As with most trendy tools, practical use has outpaced the research. Originally deemed as “myofascial release” (which was probably the wrong term to begin with!), people thought rolling was affecting the fascia and muscle. It’s likely that the new focus on the importance of fascia fueled this popularity as well.
Canadian researchers and TRAC members Drs. David Behm and Duane Button and their colleagues have been pioneers in roller research. Their original research several years ago was the first to prove that rolling led to significant improvements in ROM and flexibility within seconds and that these improvements where due to changes in the muscle and myofascia. Very interesting findings indeed, but not so fast my friend….
The speed of these improvements led us to question if the benefits of rolling are actually related to muscle and fascia – or is there a neurological mechanism at work? “We wanted to learn more about the mechanisms behind rolling so that we could develop better techniques and protocols,” said Dr. Behm.
At the 2016 TRAC meeting, Drs. Behm and Button presented 7 new studies on the TheraBand® Roller Massager and foam roller. The general consensus from this work, in addition to previous published work from their laboratory, was that the mechanism behind rolling is actually a contribution of both muscular and especially neurological mechanisms, leading us to rethink the term, “myofascial rolling,” and instead use “neuromuscular rolling.”
The researchers showed that the corticospinal pathway from the brain to the spinal cord1 and afferent sensory input from the muscle to the spinal cord7 are inhibited after rolling. Rolling-induced nervous system changes were also evident when the researchers noted that isolated rolling of an agonist muscle inhibited the antagonist, similar to a spinal level reflexive inhibition (i.e. reciprocal inhibition).3 The authors believe that rolling probably mediates pain relief through the “Gate Control Theory”4 and that the neural mechanisms underlying these changes in pain may also play a role in their above findings. These neuromuscular changes occur in the absence of a change in the architecture of the muscle following rolling2.
Key take-aways from the studies
- Neuromuscular rolling doesn’t have to be painful: 50% pain levels (rating the discomfort of rolling at 5 out of 10 on a pain scale) can increase ROM as much as high (90%) pain levels5
- Roll both the agonist and antagonist to avoid (or facilitate) reciprocal inhibition3
- Roll immediately after strenuous or new exercise to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness2
- There appears to be no benefit to adding roller massage to static stretching6
1Aboodarda SJ, et al. The effect of using roller massager on excitability of the corticospinal pathway (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):61
2Casanova N, et al. Effects of Roller Massager on Muscle Recovery After Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):63
3Cavanaugh MT, et al. Foam rolling of quadriceps decreases biceps femoris activation (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):62
4Cavanaugh MT, et al. An acute session of roller massage prolongs voluntary and tetanic force development and diminishes evoked pain (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):62
5Grabow L et al. The effect of varied force applications with self-manual therapy on range of motion and voluntary contractile properties (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):61
6Hodgson D, et al. Addition of roller massage to static stretching does not augment hamstrings flexibility or counterbalance stretch-induced deficits. (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):60
7Young JD, et al. Roller massage inhibits Hoffman reflex excitability of the soleus muscle (Abstract). 2016. J Performance Health : 1(1):62-3
About TRAC: The Performance Health Scientific Advisory Committee meets at the annual TRAC meeting to present their research on Performance Health Products