Recently, I was at a running store buying new shoes, and noticed a stack of what looked like torture devices—foam rollers, sticks, and small balls with spikes on them. I know athletes and runners swear by these tools for self-massage, but I don’t quite get it. How does it work? Is it worth trying? And … is it painful? —Miles W.Our bodies take a real beating on a daily basis. Seriously, sitting at a desk for eight hours can bring on just as many aches and pains as athletic training does. And all those weird contraptions—spiky balls, sticks, foam rollers—are particularly beneficial for massaging achy trigger points.
Trigger points are what we call the contracted tissue (or knots) in a damaged muscle. You’re probably already familiar with the pain and tightness that comes along with these knots—you might even have a few in your back, shoulders, or neck right now! Usually they’re caused by:
- Damage to the muscle like a tear or twist, e.g. an ankle sprain
- Overuse, or using the same body parts in the same way repeatedly; activities like typing, running, carrying a heavy bag, or walking in high heels can all lead to overuse
- Poor standing or sitting posture paired with weak abdominal muscles
- Unconscious muscle clenching due to stress or anxiety
- Inactivity; being on bedrest or sitting for multiple hours a day both qualify
Not only are trigger points painful, but they can also disrupt your regular range of motion and impede your ability to move normally. This can lead to even more injuries.
For example, if a runner has with a trigger point in their calf muscle, that annoying knot makes it difficult to run without pain. Instead of running in a way that continues to hurt, they’ll subconsciously change their movement pattern so that it stops bothering the leg. But usually overcompensating for an injury totally messes with the rest of the body’s alignment, which could result in more trigger points in different muscles, or an even more serious injury.
Instead of ignoring their achy knots and pesky damaged muscles, athletes and non-athletes alike are starting to turn to balls, foam rollers, and massage for relief. The treatment, also called myofascial release, is relatively new, so there’s not a lot of research to back up its effectiveness. Basically, you apply steady, targeted pressure to an affected area to force the muscle to relax. When you’re doing it, it’s crazy-uncomfortable. But physical therapists suggest that massaging and softening trigger points can alleviate everything from migraine headaches to sciatica to plantar fasciitis.
I’m a long-distance runner (aka full of trigger points!), and I’ve found that stretching and regularly using a foam roller or spiky ball makes a big difference in overall inflammation and pain in my body. Most runners I know swear by their “stick” (another myofascial release tool), and many dancers carry a tennis ball in their bag at all times, with which they can self-massage sore muscles and trigger points between rehearsals.
You can head to a massage or physical therapist for a complete myofascial release session, or try it on your own. Here’s how it works.
1. Use the right tool.
A foam roller, tennis ball, or even lacrosse ball will work.
2. Find the trigger point.
It’ll feel like a hard knot, or a particularly tough area of muscle. Make sure you’re not massaging a bone or directly on a joint, like your knee—that can cause damage!
3. Apply gentle pressure.
Slow and steady works best with this type of self-massage. Whether you’re using a tool to access those trigger points, the base of your hand, or your thumb, be gently. Digging in too quickly won’t help the muscle relax, and it just hurts.
4. Move in small circles to release the tissue.
If you’re using a ball or your hands, work from the middle of the knot slowly to the outside, massaging in concentric circles around the area. If you’re using a foam roller, deliberately and slowly roll all the way up and down the affected area.
5. Keep breathing.
It’ll be a little uncomfortable, so just keep breathing through it to get the full benefits and release.
6. Shake it out.
After you’re finished with your self-induced torture, test out the muscle you’ve been working on. It should feel a little looser, softer, and hopefully less painful.
A healthy body isn’t made only with exercise and nutrition—it requires a little self-love, too! Treat yourself to trigger point therapy after before or after workouts to keep your muscles healthy, strong, and supple.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho