Should you be using a Foam Roller?

Should you be using a Foam Roller?

Whenever I see runners in my office a common question I hear is, “Should I use a foam roller?” The foam roller has become a popular tool for runners because it has been considered one of the only treatment options for iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, A.K.A. runner’s knee.

I want to offer a word of caution about using a foam roller for this common condition. The anatomy of this area is unique and should be taken into consideration when deciding to use this mode of treatment.

When Not To Use It

The IT band overlays a majority of the most lateral quadriceps muscle called vastus lateralis. As I’ve said before, your body will form fibrous adhesions between soft tissue during times of trauma or physical stress. So, if you are repeatedly using a foam roller on your IT band, you may be adding to the problem. Lying on a foam roller, on your side in order to treat your IT band, compresses it into your quadriceps muscle.

This repetitive compression could be forming adhesions between the IT band and the quadriceps, which will inhibit the IT band from lengthening and limit its ability to glide smoothly over the underlying muscle. If this happens, the IT band will continue to be tight and continue to be problematic.

Using a foam roller on the IT band can initially break down old scar tissue and provide temporary relief. However, the repetitive compressive trauma from the foam roller can cause new adhesions to form. If you are someone who continually uses a foam roller only to find temporary relief, this may be your issue.

When To Use It

I believe that foam rollers can be beneficial in other areas of the body (e.g., calves, hamstrings and quadriceps) to aid in deeper stretching of these muscles. Be careful because damage can still be done in these areas as well.

I encourage you to think twice about using it on your IT band issues due to the anatomical uniqueness of the outer thigh. While it may feel good in the moment, it may be doing more damage than treatment.

Question: Have you used a foam roller to treat aches and pains? What was your experience like?

Dr. Ty

Dr. Crabtree is a chiropractor in South Minneapolis at the Uptown Natural Care Center. He specializes in the treatment of soft tissue injuries and is certified in Graston Technique®, Active Release Technique® and Rocktape®. He uses these techniques to aid in the correction of soft tissue dysfunction that accompanies overuse injuries that are particularly common in endurance athletes.
Contact Dr. TY
Uptown Natural Care Center
2201 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis MN 55405
612.377.7760 |
  • Nathan Freeburg

    Are there certain ways you can use a foam roller that’s not so bad, or do you suggest skipping them altogether?

    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      I personally do not recommend the use of foam rollers but if you choose to use one it is important to do it in a way that does not cause pain. Pain is the enemy when using a foam roller. The old adage, “no pain, no gain” does not apply here.

      Once the pain receptors are firing within a tissue, the mechanoreceptors (the receptors that control tissue tension) are inhibited or shut off in order to reduce damage to the area.

      Once the mechanoreceptors shut off, the tension of the tissue you are targeting will not be positively effected and most likely adhesions will form within the tissues due to the increase in inflammation. And here begins the cycle of chronic issues.

  • lynn kale

    Last summer I had IT band pain in my right leg that would not go away with rest, stretching, etc. I tried foam rolling and it was almost like magic! The immediate pain went away after a run, and after 2 uses about a week apart, my knee felt normal again.

    Now I use the foam roller on most of my leg muscles once every few weeks and the issue has not reoccurred. I also haven’t had any strained or pulled muscles in that time.

    I think one important thing about foam rolling, like everything else, is that you mustn’t overdo it. If you’re foam rolling every day, you aren’t giving your body time to recover, but as an occasional treatment, it works great.

    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      I’m glad to hear you’ve been able to continue your training with the use of a foam roller! Sounds like you found something that works well for you and that you are using it within reason! I like that you spread out your use. And you are correct in the fact that your body needs time to recover between uses.

      The one word of caution I will offer is the potential long term effects of your foam roller use. When I say long term, I’m talking years. The adhesive tissue doesn’t always develop quickly, especially when it is due to microtrauma like using a foam roller.

      If someone were to lightly poke you in the shoulder once or twice it probably wouldn’t bother you. But if someone were to lightly poke you repeatedly in the same spot thousands of times, you might start to notice! That is a very simplified explanation but I think it helps with the point that I’m trying to make.

      As long as pain is absent when you use your foam roller, I say keep it up! Good luck with your training!

      • Robbie

        What research can you support your comments with?

        • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

          None. That’s the honest answer. But, the research in the other direction is sparse and limited.

          I’m not against the idea that foam rolling could possibly be helpful but it’s one of those cases that I want to see the research support it first because I can think of a few basic physiologic and neurologic mechanisms that could explain the detrimental effects of foam rolling.

          Dr. Greg Lehman has a great critique of the foam rolling research here:

  • Ross Van Natta

    As a Physical Therapist, I have a number of patients come through our office with IT Band injuries. I have seen the foam roller be successful with patients at times, but to echo the other comments, it is usually better when used sparingly. I have found a combination of strengthening the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and hamstrings, along with soft-tissue work like Graston or Gua Sha to be the most effective.

    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      Completely agree with you Ross! Muscle imbalances as well as postural discrepancies are always important to consider!

  • Theresa Kavouras

    I just began using one this weekend for my calves, which halfway though my marathon training have gotten very tight. After the first attempt, my calves were even more sore the following day. I didn’t foam roll yesterday, and I wonder if just general stretching and keeping them loose with treadmill walks is good enough for this week.

    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      Those can be some good alternative options. It will always depend on what your symptoms are and what the issue is.

      Soft tissue treatments can help you maintain your mileage without having to take time off from your training. I’d recommend reading my previous post “Utilize The Treatment Options the Pros Use” or “Chiropractors Are More Than Just Back Doctors”.

  • Lisa Fenske

    I ran Grandma’s half on Saturday. After the race I used a hand-held roller to get a knot out in my leg. I woke up the next morning with the knot still there and a bruise over it. I found this surprising and unexpected.
    Thanks for the well-written post on the topic!

    • frenat

      That’s stinks! Does it hurt more now?


    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      That’s too bad Lisa! Unfortunately, I hear a lot of similar stories.

      If it doesn’t calm down within the next couple of days, I’d recommend trying Active Release Technique or Graston Technique.

      If you need help finding a provider near you, feel free to email me and I will find someone for you!

  • Noocrat

    Does the same logic apply to using the stick?

    • Ty Crabtree, D.C.

      When talking about the IT band, yes.

      It can be helpful in other areas of the body since the stick only allows you to apply a small amount of pressure when compared to foam rolling. I would still only use it in a pinch.

  • John Dawson

    Love muscle rollers feels great on my calves! I prefer a handheld muscle roller anyone else?

  • FootSolutions

    Valuable advise indeed! I tried foam rolling and it was terribly painful yet amazing at the same time. I feel it’s not for everyone, one should consult their physician before beginning any exercise program.