A foam roller does to the body what a rolling pin does to bread dough: It works out the bumps.
Foam rollers are a pain-relieving tool that anyone can use at home to attack muscular knots and release tension in the connective tissues throughout the body.
Cheaper than a masseuse or a physical therapist, a foam roller is easy to use at home while watching TV or hanging out with the kids. Like a hard foam log, the roller works when a person lies on it, so the body's weight creates pressure against the cylinder. It can be a bit painful at first, but feels great when it's over.
Models vary in size and density (softness), and range from $25 to $40, said Scott Wolfe, manager of Fleet Feet Sports, one place they're sold locally. Wolfe said foam rollers have been around for a long time, but they used to be found in medical supply stores.
Then gyms and physical therapists started using them as part of the rehabilitative process for athletes, and they gained attention in mainstream sports circles.
“I'm up 60 percent on sales in the last year,” he said. Runners, cyclists and other athletes buy about half of the rollers he sells, he said, to keep their IT (iliotibial) bands (tissue on the outer thigh between the hip and the knee) and quads supple. The other half he sells are from medical and therapeutic referrals.
Rebound Sports Performance and Pilates is one place that offers classes on how to use foam rollers. At a recent class, about 10 people circled around instructor Deb Mandeville-Bowen, a Pilates instructor who teaches foam roller use as a way to achieve what's called myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue around muscles that connects to bones and joints. Mandeville-Bowen compares fascia to the thin, transparent layer found on a chicken breast, under the skin. It's less understood than the muscles and bones in the body, she said. Similar to a spider's web or the yarn in a sweater, fascia in one part of the body is connected to everything else in the body.
So problems arise when the fascia tissues get tight, thick or short. It can strain the nerves, muscles, blood vessels and even the brain. The fascia gets aggravated through sports injuries, traumas, inflammation, bad posture or even disuse.
And that's when the foam roller comes in handy.
Participants in Mandeville- Bowen's class lay on their backs across the foam rollers, which were perpendicular to their bodies. Using feet and legs as levers, they rolled the log from their necks to lower backs. The participants would sigh occasionally, from both pain and pleasure.
Class members also lay down lengthwise on the rollers, with the cylinder right under the spine. That let the shoulders fall back, opening and stretching the chest. They hugged the rollers with their shoulder blades. Mandeville-Bowen guided participants through simple arm motions (“puppet arms” and “snow-angel arms”) that tweaked the pressure points between the shoulder blades and the roller. She emphasized breathing and remaining aware of any sensations in the body.
To work on their legs, participants put the rollers under the hamstrings, calves or thighs and used arm strength to hold the upper body off the floor and roll the legs back and forth over the cylinders, until the pressure from the rollers hit a sensitive spot. Then: “Hang out there,” Mandeville-Bowen said.
The sensations at first can be a bit unpleasant — a hot, tingling discomfort. Softer rollers can help a person stay longer on particularly sensitive spots. And staying on the sensitive spot for a while is important for effective myofascial release, she said. When the release happens, it's like butter melting. A softness and comfort follows the discomfort. But just rolling an inch can reveal another sensitive spot.
She warned that those with rheumatoid arthritis and disc problems should probably not use foam rollers.
Victor Novander, a first-time roller who took the recent class, said he thought the therapy was more sophisticated than ordinary stretching. He sought a whole-body experience.
“It gets beyond the major muscles and into every part of your body,” he said of the class. Novander, 80, said he did experience some pain and some release, “a greater sense of being tension-free. That's why I went ahead and bought a roller and a ball.” Living in Crooked River Ranch, he doesn't plan on driving into classes regularly.
Susan Pasquetti, of Bend, was introduced to foam rollers a couple of years ago by a friend, when she had a lot of neck and shoulder pain. That's where she carries her stress and residual pain from rotator cuff surgery. She used the roller at home but had no idea if she was using it correctly.
During a Pilates class with Mandeville-Bowen, the instructor applied pressure to her neck with a ball. “It relieved crazy amounts of pain,” Pasquetti said. They discussed myofascial release, and Pasquetti signed up for a foam roller class.
Like most kinds of exercise, the more you do it the less it hurts, said Julia Sandvall, who teaches occasional foam roller classes for members of the Athletic Club of Bend. As a personal trainer, she said, “I would call it working on flexibility, which is a component of fitness. ... a forgotten component of fitness.”
People become so tight, she said. Losing flexibility is like gaining weight: one pound or two is not that noticeable, but at some point it's bad enough to recognize a problem. As people age, flexibility and range of motion is lost.
“Everybody should be foam rollering,” she said.
Where can you learn to use foam rollers?
Google “foam rollers” to find videos and articles. Ask a personal trainer or physical therapist how to use them and where to get rollers.
Or find a clinic in town. Here are a few places to look:
• Footzone, a running supply store in downtown Bend, is offering monthly $5 clinics specifically on the use of foam rollers. Bring your own roller or buy one at Footzone. Discounts provided for participants in the class. Visit www.footzonebend.com or 541-317-3568.
• Rebound Sports Performance and Pilates center offers Tuesday afternoon classes for $10 each, and a foam roller is provided for the class. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-585-1500.
• The Athletic Club of Bend offers classes occasionally for its members. Contact: 541-385-3062.
On the Web
For more on myofascial release, visit www.myofascialrelease.com