"Am I Doing This Right?"
I became suspicious of self-myofascial release (SMFR) about 22 years ago. I was getting IT-band syndrome and a great sports medicine doc recommended foam rolling. It provided instant relief, but the relief didn't last.
I continued struggling with hip pain, despite my best foam rolling efforts. When I started working on my National Academy of Sports Medicine certification in 2004 and they strongly recommended SMFR, I thought to myself, "Well, maybe I'm doing it wrong; they're one of the premier nationally recognized organizations in fitness."
SMFR was starting to take hold as a mainstream fitness recommendation by the mid-2000s. And the marketing of these techniques has been so successful that people nowadays just assume fitness equals direct pressures on tissue. Over the past ten years, I've seen increasingly sadistic devices (harder and smaller surface area objects, including concrete blocks with notches) coupled with increasingly draconian directives from fitness "experts" and even therapists.
It's nonsense though. What's REALLY happening to the body when it experiences all this concentrated pressure in an area? Potentially nerve damage or destruction of the blood vessels.
What High Pressure SMFR Can Actually Do
The cell is a bag of fluid. Once ruptured, it can't pull itself back together. Evolutionary biologists have wished for over a hundred years that the makeup of a cell could form a cell, but it can't. You can take all of the contents inside a eukaryotic cell and you'll never get a functioning living piece of tissue without an intact membrane.
You put a little too much pressure on a cell, and it ruptures, irreparably destroyed forever. This goes for heart cells, nerve cells, muscle cells, bacteria, you name it.
The lab-tested pressure to rupture circulatory vessel cells is 12.4 ± 0.6 kPa (1).
The Science, The Math, and The Truth
Let's say you weigh 220 pounds (that's 100kg). Let's say that 90% of your weight isn't on the lacrosse ball. That leaves a mass of 10 kg. This means the force going into the ball is 98.1 newtons.
The lacrosse ball diameter is 63mm, with a "flat area" of 3,969 mm^2. Yes, there's a slope on a sphere and soft tissue will wrap around it such that the peak of the sphere and the greatest indent point in the tissue will experience a substantially higher kPa than our calculation here. And that calculation is 24.72 kPa.
Remember, the true peak pressure is higher than this. And the rupture pressure for cells is 11-13 kPa. We also went extremely conservatively, saying only 10% of bodyweight on the ball. Even if you only weigh 110 pounds, you're definitely flirting with permanent damage.
Now, skeletal muscle cell elasticity has been rated at around 24 kPa (2). But nerve cell elasticity is rated in the hundreds of Pa (3). Hundreds. Keep in mind we've been talking thousands up until now.
Nerves are rated in Pa. Direct applied pressure from a lacrosse ball is measured in kPa. Cells break in the hundreds of pascals (Pa). You're putting pressure on them in the thousands of pascals (kPa).
Is All Foam Rolling Bad?
Is there a case to be made for mild foam rolling? Probably. Is there a case to be made for manual pressures from therapists? Absolutely. There's substantial clinical evidence for it.
But does it make sense for people with little-to-no working knowledge of anatomy and physiology to place extreme pressures into tissue or to find the most painful spots and apply wanton pressure there? Definitely not. "Relief" is likely actual nerve damage and/or permanent myofibril and blood vessel destruction.
I'd argue that even mild foam rolling is suspect in a layperson if it's not clearly creating a road that moves them away from the ongoing irritation they've experienced.
Keep It Light
I apologize for having ever recommended SMFR to clients or taught it to up-and-coming coaches. The truth is, lighter pressures are probably okay, but that's not what SMFR believers are teaching.
Here's what to remember though:
- Light to light-moderate pressures may indeed help to generate a positive stimulus.
- Moderate to high pressures are deadly to human health by definition.
I worry that we're creating nerve function deficits and blood vessel damage in a whole generation of fitness enthusiasts. Indeed, most honest coaches who search deep in their souls know they've never seen athletic performance go UP in athletes after incorporating high pressure SMFR.
The end of an athlete's performance bests is often marked by the beginning of high pressure SMFR. But perhaps this article can mark the beginning of the end of high pressure SMFR.
- Gonzalez-Rodriguez, David, et al. "Mechanical Criterion for the Rupture of a Cell Membrane under Compression." Biophysical Journal, vol. 111, no. 12, 2016, pp. 2711-2721., doi:10.1016/j.bpj.2016.11.001.
- "Endothelial, Cardiac Muscle and Skeletal Muscle Exhibit Different Viscous and Elastic Properties as Determined by Atomic Force Microscopy." NeuroImage, Academic Press, 14 Nov. 2001, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002192900100149X.
- Spedden, White, et al. "Elasticity Maps of Living Neurons Measured by Combined Fluorescence and Atomic Force Microscopy." Biophysical Journal. 2012;103: 868-877. 10.1016/j.bpj.2012.08.005