Foam Rollers: Do They Really Help Sore Hips, Glutes, and Muscle Pain?

Many of my readers have asked me about foam rollers. Screen Shot 2012-03-15 at 9.38.58 PMWhat do I think about them? Can they really eliminate muscle pain that develops over time? If you're looking for more than temporary relief - no, they don't. In fact, they might even invoke the stretch reflex, making your muscles tighter than they were before. Do they help move lymph through your body after a tough workout or run? Possibly. Do they teach your hips to move better and more fluidly so that you don't have hip pain, and, in turn, knee and foot pain? Definitely not.

Tight muscles that you feel need to be "rolled" are often in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is the condition of chronically contracted muscles that won't "turn off." These muscles have learned to stay tight due to accidents, injuries, surgeries, overtraining, and stress. They are stuck in a constant feedback loop of contraction. No amount of foam rolling will reverse sensory motor amnesia.

The way you move is a reflection of what's going on in your nervous system.

The point being: if you don't address the nervous system and how it controls muscles and movement, you won't create much improvement in your ability to relieve tight hips, glutes, iliotibial bands or the like after a workout, run or day at the office.

SMA is a reflection of one's nervous system: SMA doesn't really show up until there's enough pain and restriction of movement that you finally take notice. It is the "canary in the mine shaft" in regards to muscle dysfunction. If you find that your hips are always tight, your gait is "off," your pelvis is twisted or your leg length is uneven, your brain and nervous system has ceased to be able to coordinate your muscles properly. It has lost awareness.

How do you regain sensory awareness and relieve muscle pain?

Through opening up new pathways in your brain and doing movements you might not usually do (this applies to athletes every bit as much as the seated office worker) you teach the brain and muscles to move more intelligently. This is the key to not needing to use foam rollers, Thera Canes, or other gadgets to release muscles and improve flexibility.

Muscles that you're told need to be rolled after every workout so that they don't develop adhesions can be easily and rapidly released through the technique of pandiculation. Pandiculating muscles wakes them up at the brain level, reduces accumulated muscle tension in the muscle, and allows the brain to more accurately sense and therefore move the muscle. This kind of intentional "re-boot" of muscle function makes a whole lot of sense. Animals pandiculate - 42 times a day in some cases. This means that animals don't get muscle strains and pulls because their nervous systems are always in constant control.

If your hips, quads, back, or iliotibial band are always tight after a workout or run, I would suggest incorporating some preventive somatic movement in your workout warm-up.

Tight hips? Remember: tight hips are caused by tight back, waist, and abdominal muscles that don't allow for movement in the pelvis when you walk. Check out these Somatic Exercises for the hips. You may also be interested in my Leg & Hips Joints DVD.

Iliotibial band pain? Watch this video. Learning to release the hips and regaining a smooth gait is the key to being able to prevent iliotibial band pain.

Back pain? Try arch and flatten, arch and curl, the back lift, and cross lateral arch and curl (from Pain Relief Through Movement).

Several blog posts ago I provided suggestions regarding Somatics "warm-ups" and "cool-downs" that can help improve one's muscle function during a workout. Go back and review them. You'll be glad you did.

Ed Barrera, Hanna Somatic Educator, soccer player, and owner of GravityWerks in Washington state plays 5 soccer games a week and competes yearly in the US Veterans World Cup. He never has muscle soreness after games or competition - and never gets injured! His daily routine of Somatic Exercises in the morning and evening and before every game are the secret to his pain-free life.