Does it really work? Fighting chronic pain with foam rollers

If you suffer from chronic pain including backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome or migraines, you may have heard of foam rollers and the claims they can provide relief. But is it a passing trend or do they really help?

Val Torikawa thinks so. For 15 years, she suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and was often bedridden and depressed. “I was on ibuprofen medication every day,” she said. “And when you are a sinus sufferer, it’s like double whammy.

“You just kind of chalk it up to old age and that’s how it was for me,” Torikawa said. “I thought okay, this is what life is going to be like.”

That changed when Torikawa started using a roller two years ago. The migraines are now gone and so is her pain caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. “I was very skeptical,” she said. “I remember telling my husband and we laughed. We’re like, ‘What’s a roller class? What’s that going to do?’”

Foam rolling breaks scar tissue and can smooth and lengthen muscles. It also activates your body’s fascia, which connects muscles, blood vessels, nerves and tendons, resulting in better blood circulation.

Anthony Chrisco, owner of Your Body is Waiting, instructs people how to properly use the rollers. He says while there is much anecdotal evidence, he knows there are skeptics, “especially the people that have been given so many different types of pain killers for ailments that can be resolved by rolling on a tube for lack of a better term.”

Straub Clinic and Hospital physician Dr. Cedric Akau says while foam rolling can improve one’s range of motion through flexibility and even decrease fatigue, there are no studies showing improvement in performance. He stresses foam rolling can be used as a tool “as long as you’re not doing something that actually could cause some damage,” he said.

Akau reminds pain sufferers not to roll over bones, especially the spine, joints or inflamed areas, and that foam rollers should only be a part of a comprehensive exercise program. He urges anyone new to rollers to consult with his or her physician.

Akau also says foam rolling is not to be considered an end-all solution. “Health and wellness is not just one thing, it’s a balance of multiple things,” he said.

Chrisco says proper use and continued maintenance are critical in staying pain-free. “As soon as you forget to do it, guess what. All those gremlins of your body will come back,” he said.

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