Use a Foam Roller to Bust Back Pain

This simple-looking product can be a powerful ally in the battle against back pain.

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You may have spotted them at the gym, tucked into a corner or being used by someone who just benched 240 pounds. Or perhaps you’ve seen them on the shelves at a sporting goods store, making you scratch your head and say to yourself: What are those, some sort of medieval torture devices? 

Woman using a foam roller for back painTo move better with less back pain, try a foam roller.

If you’ve spotted those sporty-looking cylinders made of colorful foam, you’ve likely seen a foam roller. These items are beloved by athletes, but also hold major benefits for non-athletes as well, especially anyone who struggles with back painand stiffness. 

The gains that foam rollers can provide for sore backs have been studied. For example, one 2017 study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies observed 38 healthy young adults to find out if foam rollers had a positive impact on the thoracolumbar fascia, or deep muscles of the back. The study concluded that after using foam rollers, the participants experienced improved mobility of the thoracolumbar fascia. 

To move better and enjoy less, or even nonexistent, back pain, look to the sometimes-strange-looking, yet mighty, foam roller. 

What Exactly is a Foam Roller?

Dyan Tsiumis, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer at MYXfitness, explains that a foam roller is a tool that is used as a form of deep-tissue self-massage. There are many types and many shapes, she says. Some are cylinder shaped and some may be beveled. There are high-density foam rollers that are stiff and lower density rollers that are spongy. Some are hollow with a cushioned coating, and some are solid inside. They range in size from compact 18-inch rollers to three feet or more long.

The main purpose of foam rollers is assisted massage when you have “areas that are cumbersome for you to reach yourself for hand manipulation,” Tsiumis says. In other words? It’s pretty ideal for those hard-to-reach areas of the back. And they aren’t just for hardcore athletes. 

“Foam rollers can be used by anyone,” Tsiumis asserts. But she does add some words of caution, saying, “Sometimes, foam rolling is not comfortable for people. Be aware of the sensations that are developing. If it feels good and beneficial to use the foam roller as a form of relief, that’s great.” But, she cautions, it’s important to know the difference between pain that feels good from loosening a tight muscle and pain that feels like there’s something seriously wrong. 

Is a Foam Roller Beneficial for Back Pain?

While Tsiumis says that a foam roller can be helpful to back pain, it is important to be mindful of where you’re rolling and how you’re rolling. 

“It might be helpful if you have tightness in the lower back accompanied by back pains or spasms, or if you have pain in your pelvis and hips caused by sitting, tightness, or over-strenuous exercise,” she says. 

Ideally, if you’re aiming to relieve back pain, Tsiumis says that foam rolling can be done in conjunction with other healing modalities, such as stretching. 

And if you’d like to focus particularly on your lower back, Tsiumis recommends rolling out the glutes, the top of the glutes, and areas along the spine, “but not right on the spine,” she adds. 

“Then combine it with stretching,” she says. “For example, come to standing, or knees, for hip circles, and then roll again.” 

How to Use a Foam Roller

Tsiumis shares her top tips for starting a foam-rolling regimen. 

Don’t put it away. Tsiumis suggests keeping your foam roller in a visible area where you can grab it at a moment’s notice. “I keep mine next to my bed,” she says. “It’s especially helpful because it releases so much tension in the body, and helps to do it right before bed, especially in the hips when it’s uncomfortable to sleep.” 

Experiment. Spend five minutes here and there “just playing with your foam roller,” Tsiumis says, adding, “Incorporate it with different stretches. If you're doing a forward fold seated or standing, roll out your hamstrings, glutes, and your upper back and see how your body reacts to it.” 

Foam roll when you feel like you need to. Foam rolling doesn’t have to be a daily habit—for back pain or any other aches, it can be used as needed. “Grab your foam roller for three minutes and roll if you have time, and that will help,” Tsiumis says. “If you have stiffness or soreness, that’s an indication to foam roll.” If you’d like to make it part of your routine, “one or two times a week is awesome,” Tsiumis suggests, aiming for 5 to 10 minutes each time. “If you have 30 minutes to carve out once a week, that's amazing, too,” she says. 

As for where to roll, SpineUniverse editorial board member Theresa Marko, DPT, agrees with Tsiumis’s recommendation of rolling the thoracic and not the lumbar spine. “You roll from mid back to upper back, stopping at about the top of your shoulder blades,” she explains. Here’s how: 

  • Lie on the floor
  • Bend your knees
  • Lean against the foam roller at your mid back
  • Put hands behind your head to support it
  • Lift up your butt

Use your legs to help you roll up and down along the thoracic spine

Why the upper and mid-back instead of the lower back? Dr. Marko says it’s because the upper back is convex—it bows outward in a curve called kyphosis, “so rolling it helps it to straighten out,” she says.

On the other hand, explains Dr. Marko, “Your lumbar spine is already concave (curving inward, a curve known as lordosis), and rolling it pushes on it more and can actually cause pain to your lower back vertebrae and discs. In the lumbar spine are pushing something further into its concavity, which can lead to injury if done improperly.” 

Don’t limit yourself to only rolling your upper and mid back when you have back pain, says Dr. Marko. Rolling other areas can help, especially when you have lower back pain. She suggests rolling out your glutes—your butt muscles—and the spot where the hip meets the torso, where pockets would be on a pair of jeans. “These two rolls are safe and help the lower back,” she says.

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Use a Foam Roller?

If you are pregnant or have diabetes, you should see a physical therapist to get a custom-tailored rolling program.  You shouldn’t foam roll an acute injury; wait a few days for some of the inflammation to go down. 

Also, Tsiumis says, “If you experience numbness or tingling, don’t do it anymore. Foam rolling isn't necessarily the most comfortable, so make sure to listen to your body.”  

Updated on: 05/12/21
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