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Do’s and Don’ts of Foam Rolling for Back Pain

Foam rollers have been popular among athletes and physical therapists for a long time, but have recently become very popular among non-athletes who suffer from back pain. Essentially, foam rolling is a self-massage during which you use a foam roller to apply pressure to tight muscles to alleviate pain. Foam rolling can help to alleviate back pain, but you have to make sure you are doing it correctly, or you could do more harm than good.

Do check with your doctor first.

If you have an existing back or spine condition that is causing your muscle tightness, you should always check with your doctor before beginning any program designed to “treat” or work with back pain. Your doctor can help to make sure you are using the foam roller in a way that won’t do more damage. If you are new to foam rolling, you might even want to consider working with a physical therapist or trainer who can show you the correct way to use the foam roller.

Don’t roll directly on the lower back.

You should never use a foam roller directly on the lower back. It is fine to use a foam roller on the upper back, because the shoulder blades and muscles in the upper back will protect the spine. There are no structures in the lower back that can help to protect your spine from the pressure. If you use a foam roller on your lower back, the spinal muscles could contract and cause more damage than good, especially if your back pain is caused by a condition in the lumbar spine. When using a foam roller on your back, you should stop at the end of the ribcage. Instead, focus the foam roller on your glutes and hip flexors to alleviate lower back pain. Tightness in those areas often contributes to lower back pain.

Do make sure your posture is correct.

Because of the way you have to position your body to use the foam roller, it is important to make sure your posture and form are correct, or you could cause more harm than good. This is another reason why it can be helpful to work with a trainer or physical therapist, so that he or she can help correct your form before it does any damage.

Don’t spend too much time on tender areas.

When most people find a knot or tender area with the foam roller, their inclination is to keep working on it for awhile, sometimes using their entire body weight to apply pressure to the area. This can cause nerve or tissue damage and bruising. Applying excessive pressure while you are wincing in pain won’t help you; foam rolling can be uncomfortable, but it should never be so painful that it is unbearable. Spend no more than 15-30 seconds working on a tender area.

Do slow it down.

People who use foam rollers are often tempted to roll quickly, but while it may feel good, it won’t help to alleviate the tightness in your muscles. To roll correctly, you should move no more than one inch per second. By moving slowly, you give your muscles time to adapt and relax with the pressure.

Many athletes and physical therapists praise the benefits of foam rolling in relieving muscle tension. If muscle tightness in the back is a problem for you, foam rolling may be helpful, as long as you take the time to learn the technique and do it correctly.