What's long and round and may be just the thing your workout needs to ease muscle pain and increase flexibility?

Woman using a foam roller on the outside of her thigh.
Using a foam roller can ease muscle pain and increase range of motion.

A foam roller is a cylindrical piece of foam that has found increasing popularity in the gym or on the playing field. People use it either on the floor or by hand to deliver self-myofascial release (or self-massage) to muscles by pressing or rolling it along the major muscle groups.


How foam rolling works

Numerous studies support the use of foam rolling to ease muscle pain and increase range of motion after exercising—all without reducing muscle strength. One study even suggested that it can reduce arterial stiffness and improve vascular function. 1 Okamoto T, Masuhara M, Ikuta K. Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(1):69-73.

Experts think this occurs because the roller increases blood flow to the muscles and alleviates soft tissue adhesions, often referred to as muscle "knots" or "trigger points."

These are some of the potential injuries that foam rolling—along with stretching and proper form while exercising—may help prevent:

Foam rolling also may help speed up injury recovery, but you should consult your doctor before you add it to your treatment plan following an injury.

See The P.R.I.C.E. Protocol Principles

5 important tips for foam rolling

If you would like to try foam rolling for yourself, here are some tips from the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Sports Medicine Institute International to get you started:

  1. Foam rolling may not be appropriate for those with medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, kidney or other organ failure, bleeding disorders, or some skin conditions. If you have one of these conditions, check with your doctor before using a foam roller.
  2. Use the roller only on muscle tissue—avoid joints, tendons, or bony structures. Don't use it on areas that are extremely painful either.
  3. Use the roller not only before you exercise, but before you stretch, because rolling improves the muscle's ability to lengthen during stretching. You can also use it after exercising to offset muscle pain resulting from your workout.
  4. Slowly roll the roller up and down or until you find a tender spot. Then apply gentle, steady pressure to the tender area until pain eases, but for no longer than 60 seconds. Foam rolling can ease muscle knots, but may not resolve them completely—especially on the first application.
  5. Avoid using a foam roller on your lower back. Since back muscles are rarely the cause of low back pain, the roller won't ease pain, and in fact may make it worse.

If you're experiencing pain that's not eased by foam rolling or that recurs frequently, see your doctor. You may have an underlying condition or muscle imbalance that needs to be diagnosed and treated.

Carrie DeVries worked as the content marketing manager at Veritas Health. Carrie combined a background of writing and editing, marketing, and patient education to best serve the consumers, patients, and physicians who rely the Veritas Health sites for information.