March 14, 2019

Using foam rollers to loosen your "guitar strings"

A fit person foam rolling their hip

UW Health Sports Rehabilitation athletic trainer uses a musical analogy to describe the impact foam rollers have on the body.

"I describe it as a guitar string," she says. "(When an athlete is injured) the guitar string tightens to protect the body from further injury. By foam rolling, you loosen your guitar string to allow for better range of motion, decrease pain and decrease the protective nature of the tissue."

Tips for Foam Roller Use

1. Foam rollers are appropriate for warm-ups and they're great for cool downs.

2. Let your personal comfort level dictate your foam roller use.

3. If you don't have a foam roller handy, improvise. Rolling pins and tennis balls can achieve the same effect.

Loosening up sore muscles is probably the most common use for foam rollers. They're easy to use - their shape almost suggests their function, and just about the only incorrect way to wield foam rollers is to grip them like baseball bats and take a swing - and easy to get. Go to any health club and you're likely to see a Spandex-clad woman or man draped over a roller, and Amazon can have one to your door in two days for about 10 bucks.

Foam rollers are versatile - "They're relevant to whatever part of the body you're working," Chorlton says - but not dangerous.

"They can be very helpful," Chorlton says, "and are safe if used appropriately."

That's why Chorlton is comfortable providing only loose parameters for foam roller use.

"I have people who use them for a couple bouts of 20 seconds and people who use them for several minutes.  But it really depends on the person's situation and injury, and how tolerant they are."

Chorlton appreciates the impact foam rollers can have on athletes rehabilitating from injuries so much she also uses them to improve upper spine mobility. Think office workers who spend eight or 10 hours a day hunched over their keyboards, without true reprieve. The spine suffers from that lack of movement, and foam rollers can compel the needed counteractivity.

"Myofascial release is the term," she says. "If somebody has stiffness because they sit a lot and don't get a lot of reversal in their spine, using foam rollers can help improve spine extension by decreasing muscle tension and improving spine mobility.”

Trigger points are the areas of the muscle that are overactive due to injury response or due to chronic postural strain. They cause tension and pain. Foam rollers, however, encourage the body to release that tension and, to use another musical analogy, "turn down the volume dial," Chorlton says.

And you don't even have to have foam rollers to achieve their benefits. Chorlton substitutes baking pins for foam rollers for people with lower-body injuries or soreness. Baking pins, though, can be difficult to use on shoulder and upper spine, so Chorlton suggests lacrosse balls or tennis balls for those hard-to-reach places.

"They function exactly the same as foam rollers," she says.