If you wake up every morning with an aching lower back or find yourself rubbing sore shoulders several afternoons a week, you’re far from alone. One in five Australians lives with some kind of chronic pain, according to Pain Australia. That’s about 20 percent of the population. So you’re in good company-though that doesn’t make it any less of a pain in the, well, neck.
Good news: The solution might be just an inexpensive tool and a few minutes away. Physiotherapists have long turned to foam rollers (the long, cylindrical black or blue pieces of foam you’ve likely seen in the gym) to release tension and, in the process, wipe out aches.
Benefits of foam rolling
Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, helps release muscle tension by making the top layers of tissues more flexible. “There’s a layer of tissue called fascia that lies on top of the muscles and connects your muscle groups,” explains physiotherapist Brian Gurney. “Typically what happens is that tight, sensitive trigger points develop in the fascia. Using the foam roller helps release those points and soft tissue adhesions.” Pairing foam roller exercises with stretches will open the unrestricted tissues, and you might just find yourself moving more freely and your pain relieved.
Foam rolling also helps increase your range of motion because the muscles around your joints aren't so tight. Most trainers recommend you foam roll before you exercise to wake up the joints and muscles as well as post-workout to prevent soreness.
One word of caution: If your pain is sharp or tingling, lasts more than a week, or started after some kind of traumatic incident, see your doctor. A doctor can advise about more serious muscular or skeletal injuries while a physiotherapist can analyse your movement to pinpoint the problem. “If your pain is achy, comes and goes, goes away, or feels better with exercise, those are signs it’s an issue with tightness in soft tissue that’s restricting your mobility and foam rolling can help,” says physiotherapist David Reavy.
5 foam roller exercises to relieve pain
That said, grab your foam roller (We like this one!) and try these exercises and stretches from Gurney and Reavy for the following aches. For each, roll for 30 to 60 seconds, pausing and letting the muscle relax around the roller when you hit a tight or tender spot. Then hold the stretch that follows for at least 30 seconds.
If you have knee pain...
Pain in this joint often comes from tightness in the iliotibial (aka your IT band) running up the outside of your thigh or from tight quads (on the front of your thighs).
How to foam roll your IT band and quads: Lie with a foam roller just above your knee on the outside of your leg. Make sure it's perpendicular to your body. Move your body back and forth so the roller moves along the IT band from your knee up to your hip. Then roll your quads, pausing when you hit a tight spot; bending and straightening knee will help get deeper into the muscle.
Stretch your quads and hip flexors: Kneel in front of a couch or wall. Keeping your left knee on the floor, raise the left foot behind you and rest it against the couch or wall. Step your right leg out so the right foot is flat on the floor and the right knee is bent, thigh parallel to the floor. Hold this pose for a few breaths. You should feel the stretch in your left quad and hip flexor. Alternate sides.
If you have lower back pain...
Pain in your back might actually stem from the front of your body: A tight hip flexor (the muscle where your legs meet your hips) often tugs on your lower back and results in aches in that area. Using a tennis ball is actually better for targeting lower-back pain than a foam roller because it can get deeper into the tense tissues. Both Reavy and Gurney don't recommend foam rolling your lower back.
Roll your lower back: Lie face down with a tennis ball under your hip flexor, easing your weight into it. Roll in small circles until you hit a tight spot, then stop and let the muscle sink into it. Bending knee behind you and letting your lower leg fan in and out can also help.
If you have shoulder or neck pain...
“A lot of times with neck pain, people lack mobility in their thoracic spine,” aka your upper back, says Gurney. Tightness here can put stress on your neck.
How to foam roll your upper back: Lie with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine, just under your shoulder blades, with your butt on the ground. Support the back of your head with hands and extend your spine backward, then return to the starting position. Continue rotating backward and forward.
Stretch your chest: Stand in the middle of a doorway with your arms extended at the sides. Holding onto the doorway, move the body forward until you feel the stretch in front of your shoulders and across your chest.
If you have Achilles pain...
Tight calves can often cause pain above or below them, says Gurney, so you might feel the ache up in your knee or down in your ankle or the Achilles tendon. Gurney also recommends using tennis balls for treating this kind of pain.
How to foam roll your calves: Tape two tennis balls together, and then roll the balls around the Achilles, working up the calf muscle. The groove between the balls fits nicely around the Achilles.
Stretch your calves: Get into a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders, forming a straight line from your head to your toes. Push your hips up toward the ceiling so your body forms an upside-down V. Keeping the left foot on the floor, lift your right foot and rest it on your left calf. Let your right leg relax while feeling the stretch in your left calf. Hold for a few breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.