Back rollers--friend or foe?
April 27, 2015 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Is self-massaging with back rollers actually beneficial for you? Can they lead to injury?

I am interested in using a back roller. I don't have any major back, spine, or neck issues other than tightness and some discomfort. Primarily, I want to release tension and well, do something that feels good.

I'm looking at this foam one or this wooden one.

However, is there any there any proven benefit to using back rollers? Are they harmful to use? Is it easy to injure yourself with them?

I've tried to google this myself but I only get ads to buy back rollers or flimsy articles from fitness magazines.
posted by joeyjoejoejr to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I use a foam roller and lacrosse ball after working out to massage my muscles. It feels really nice and loosens up any muscle stiffness I have right after a hard session -- that's enough of a proven benefit for me, personally. I have never injured myself doing this, and I am, like, the world's most injury prone person alive.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:00 AM on April 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Not sure about actual benefits, but specifically as to whether they're harmful to use:

I went to a trainer who had my use a foam roller before every workout, and my gym has actual foam roller classes. I myself would rather be dragged over carpet tacks and then dipped in iodine rather than take a 30-minute foam roller class, but I'm assuming that if it weren't physiologically sound, the trainer wouldn't have been doing it and there wouldn't be classes where people rolled themselves over the damn things for a half hour, so.
posted by holborne at 10:04 AM on April 27, 2015

I do a lot of rolling on all of my body, and it's spectacular. It feels great. I'm sure there is a small chance of hurting yourself, as there is with everything, but it is unlikely to cause injury.

That said, if you're looking for something that feels good, I strongly recommend against both of your examples. Those are very hard rollers. They'll hurt. They'll be hard to adjust how much tension your using. so unless you have some really bad stuff to work out, I'd go for something smaller and slightly softer. Maybe a foam or dense air ball, or just a short foam roller instead of the foam-coated hard plastic one. I think you'll get more out of it if you start softer.
posted by brainmouse at 10:04 AM on April 27, 2015

Anecdotally, I can say that self-massage with a Stick has led to immediate relief from intense back spasms/pain. It requires a bit of guidance, though; despite the fact that I was dealing with back pain, what actually made the most difference was massaging the front of my hip.

There's also at least one study showing that "[a]n acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force."
posted by asterix at 10:05 AM on April 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nearly every paramedical professional I know suggests they are good for myofascial release, which is only one facet of muscle pain and tightness - particularly related to the use of muscle, rather than lack of use and more structural (bad posture) muscle activation problems.

My own anecdotal experience is yes - foam rolling gives an immediate feeling of release, and over the longer term it allow you to better manage athletic-based muscle soreness and improve stretching. The day after a hard workout and a night-time foam roller session, I feel a lot more capable to go out and move again. I've also been using mine lately to try to counteract a hip that really wants to jut out of position and it seems to help me reset.

Like anything - you can certainly injure yourself. I spent three days with limited mobility after using a lacrosse-esque ball as "prescribed" at yoga on a trigger point in my foot. Read up, go slow and understand that some pain is normal, but shooting or unbearable pain is not what you're after. If you have health coverage, going to see a physiotherapist to show you how to use one is not a bad use of your time.
posted by buoys in the hood at 10:24 AM on April 27, 2015

If you want to try it out with minimal expense, two tennis balls in a knotted sock, rolling up and down your spine (one ball either side of the spine) and paying extra (but gentle) attention to particularly tight bits, is as good as any fancy-pants roller I've tried.
posted by penguin pie at 10:35 AM on April 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just coming in to say what penguin pie said above. And this was specifically recommended to me by my massage therapist (who is all about sports injury therapy and prevention and not about reiki or aromatherapy woo stuff).
posted by gaspode at 11:32 AM on April 27, 2015

I am a foam roller convert based on recommendations from physical therapists, personal trainers, and my own experience.

The other device you may want to look at is the "Back Buddy" which sells for about $35. I recently got one of these and it is amazing on trigger points in your back.
posted by elmay at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2015

I've been in PT on and off since 2008 and one of the things that really helps me get by in my day to day life is a foam roller. however i agree w/the above comments that the ones you have chosen are terrible torture devices for advanced rollers only. get a plain black foam one and you'll be fine.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:29 PM on April 27, 2015

Not to threadsit, but I am a glutton for pain when it comes to massages. I've nearly broken an electric shiatsu massager by digging my back into them too forcefully.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 12:37 PM on April 27, 2015

I have a plain foam roller (mine is a friendly orange color, I think I got it at Dick's Sporting Goods), which I got after my Physical Therapist recommended it. I can't see how you'd hurt yourself unless you accidentally stepped on it and fell down the stairs or something. And it's an intense stretch, almost painful, but in a good way. My issues are my hips and upper legs, and it really does relieve the tightness and soreness.
posted by chowflap at 1:09 PM on April 27, 2015

I have used both. The wooden one is intense. I called it the "back weasel" and just no. However someone I know loved it so YMMV. And the other one you linked is also pretty intense. If you were a runner or someone into triathalon, that would be a good one to get. I really like the long foam roller that is very plain. The 36" is great for your upper back and laying on and opening up your chest.
posted by amanda at 3:13 PM on April 27, 2015

I have both a foam roller ,this one and that wooden one you're interested in. I like the foam as more of a "lay on top of it to stretch" tool. I find that it doesn't get the tough little knots out, but is great for realignment after yard work or other torture. I like the wooden one, but sitting on the bed with my back against a wall. I think that on the floor would be way too intense. If you sit and lean against the wall, you can easily control the pressure. It is far superior to the roller with the nasty knots. I think a lacrosse or tennis ball would do the same thing, but they are harder to control. I tend to lean, find the perfect spot, then have the ball shoot right out onto the floor to be devoured by my dog.
posted by hippychick at 4:03 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint, I tend not to recommend them to patients (I am an osteopath).

It isn't that they don't work, but that they work inconsistently: it is easy to get strong pressure on your quads and glutes, not too bad for your calves and really awkward for your hamstrings.

Then, when you actually apply the roller, it is really painful. You say you like a painful massage, so this will probably appeal to you. I don't like it because it teaches people that pain is a positive, and leads to things like rolling IT bands (which do not stretch, but definitely hurt!).

However, outside of seeing people who have bruised themselves, and the possibility of it being really painful, I don't know a reason not to use them. And I also recommend the 'peanut' (2 tennis balls in a sock) for paraspinal muscles to people regularly.

I also think I have read about possible fascial effects from the rolling, which might even justify rolling your ITB! I can't remember the source, though.
posted by fizban at 4:12 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

i have a plain foam roller and its one of the best things that's ever happened to me. i hurt myself once the first time i used it because i didn't know that i needed to keep my "core" tight and i just rolled on it in a relaxed state to "crack my back" and instead strained a muscle. now i do use it for my back but mostly just for my middle and upper back for times when i've had to work hunched over at a too-low table all day. where i get the most benefit is in my glutes and thighs. i'm very careful and aware of my posture when i use it and tend to use it as something between an exerciser and a massager. i always make sure my body is balanced and stable and it really, really helps when things are tight.

a little bit seems to go a long way and having suffered from back pain for years i always stress caution. one of the best exercises i find is to sit on the roller with knees slightly bent and then cross one leg over the other. keeping my hands to either side on the floor for stability i rock back and forth slightly and really bring my weight into that isolated gluteal and it works wonders for my legs and lower back. i've googled two exercises to do and those help enough that i've never looked into any others.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 4:37 PM on April 27, 2015

If you're a glutton for pain, then you're a good candidate for foam rolling. Also, there's a difference between "it hurts in a good way" and "it hurts because it's injuring me" and you'll be able to tell the difference.

Foam rolling changed my life. I've saved myself hundreds (well, thousands) of dollars in massage therapy.

Keep in mind that it is only one piece of the puzzle that is good muscular health. Regular stretching, strength training, good posture, and good nutrition are integral.

Read a lot of guides and differing opinions on how to properly foam roll. The use of foam rollers on IT bands has been debated by some (stating it can destabilize the knee), so I don't focus on that area as much.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:19 PM on April 27, 2015

So it's been decided--I need a foam roller. I bought this one because I'm a glutton for painful massages as well as draining my bank account.

Thanks for the helpful answers.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 7:18 AM on April 28, 2015

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