The Key to Foam Rolling (self massage) for Trigger Points

A common topic among my clients is foam rolling.  What is it?  Should I do it?  Will it help?  For those of you new to foam rolling, it is a hard peice of styrofoam shaped like a giant rolling pin or cigar designed to allow one to self massage unhealthy tissue (knotted or painful tissue) using the weight of your own body balanced on the foam roller. They cost around $15-30 and can be purchased at any sporting goods, running, Physical Therapy, Relax the Back or larger discount stores.

I often see clients after they have foam rolled themselves into more pain, so perhaps I speak with some bias here but here’s what I see: If used sparingly and mindfully for cases of mild muscle tension – foam rolling can be a life saver – especially if you can’t always get in to see a good massage therapist when you are in pain.   That said, one must consider the root cause and severity before going at it too hard with a foam roller (or a tennis ball for that matter).

Trigger points often form in weakened overstretched tissue (for example in upper back posterior shoulder, where tissue is weak and overstretched due to tight chest and bicep muscles and rounded shoulders) and when trigger points become chronic, they begin to cause fascial adhesions and unhealthy or “stuck” tight tendons near neighboring joints.  Foam rolling will address the muscle belly while leaving the surrounding tendons and ligaments near the joint yearning for attention.  This can leave your muscles feeling more irritated and painful in the end. The truth is, getting into the nooks and cranies of the joint structures (structural or deep tissue massage) will usually provide the lasting relief you need for moderate to serious muscle tension and trigger points.

Typical scenario: rolling feels great!! Yipee, I’m gonna roll the crap out of this trigger point! Ahhhh. That hurts sooooo goood!  (Yes, I’ve been there!) 10 minutes later, pain returns with a vengeance. Now this is NOT always the case, but if you rely on foam rolling repeatedly rather than addressing the root cause of your pain, you may end up worsening your pain and really feeling desparate.

Here are some good rules to follow when using a Foam Roller:

1) GO SLOW!  knotted tissue and trigger points hate to be pushed too fast – they like to be coaxed.  You are not tenderizing a steak here…

2) Don’t overdo it.  Less is more.

3) Be mindful of how you can balance to moderate pressure before you tackle a really sensative trigger point and if you need instruction on foam rolling – click on the video below.

4) If pain persists, don’t wait until you grow a huge “farm” of trigger points.  Address the pain and get at the root cause.  Try ice/heat therapy (click on the blog post here about ice and heat to learn more) and book a session with a skilled massage therapist.   One session could end several weeks or months of needless pain and rolling.

One more word about trigger points: many of my clients come to me after getting multiple injections to address trigger point pain.  Injections may or may not treat the symptoms, and even your physician will tell you they won’t treat the root cause.  They will SOMETIMES treat inflammation (a symptom) – when inflammation is the cuase of the pain.  More commonly the cause of pain is not inflammation but unhealthy soft tissue (tight muscles, tendons, fascia, and ligaments) which can cause nerve impingement, numbness and severe pain or pressure on your spine and joints.