Why learn self-massage? Why the science doesn’t matter (that much), and why not everyone needs to do it

There are a lot of things you have to learn to keep your body happy. Whether you’re an athlete, a desk jockey, or a retiree, there are some fundamental things you need to keep track of to keep your body feeling good.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the importance of self-massage. We won’t go in depth on how to do it (but if you’re interested in a quick guide on it, check out the Roll and Release program here).

The most basic and currently most popular form of self-massage is with a foam roller.  Foam rolling is a wonderful way to start massaging your body to keep everything moving well. You can also move to a lacrosse ball or softball to help you out as well.

Now there are people who say foam rolling has not been proven to do anything to improve your flexibility. There are people who say that self-massage has not been vigorously studied enough to determine whether or not it has an effect on mobility and general comfort levels.

From a scientific point of view, these are legitimate concerns.

But in this case, I don’t care about those concerns because the (often-observed) benefits are potentially huge, the risks are practically nil, and the costs are also wonderfully low.

What about being scientific?

I’m a fan of science. I like to think critically about things. I am always thinking about whether or not a certain belief is based on good evidence and is internally consistent (yes, this gets very tiring).

For major health interventions, I think it’s critically important to study the effects against the benefits and the costs. It’s critically important to determine how the intervention (and the problem you’re trying to fix) works. This is helpful for making sure you are effective and aren’t wasting people’s time and money or putting them at unnecessary risk of harm.

Foam rolling / self massage should be studied to understand how it affects the body and by what mechanisms change happens. Absolutely. But I don’t believe waiting for those studies to come out before recommending doing it makes sense. Still, I understand why someone would take the opposite position. There are absolutely situations where that’s warranted.

Let me lay out a couple examples of situations where I think intervention should probably wait on rigorous research before becoming a widespread practice.

Example number 1: Surgery to correct something. Surgery can be dangerous. It can lead to complications. It is invariably quite expensive. In the realm of joint health, history is riddled with examples of joint “correcting” surgeries that are literally no better than placebo. Meniscus surgeries, spinal fusions, and shoulder impingement surgeries all come to mind. A new surgery to “correct” a joint problem should be strongly scrutinized from many different angles to determine whether it is really as good as its first proponents claim.

Example number 2: A new drug to treat a disease. Without getting too detailed with this (I’m sure there are plenty of books out there that cover the craziness of this topic), I’ll say this: drugs can be dangerous, lead to complications, and may or may not be quite expensive. A new drug may have a long list of unknown effects that do not surface until many years after first release. You can have the best of intentions and have a ticking time bomb in your body. Is there perhaps an argument to be made for some drugs to be rushed to market to treat a severe disease without much testing? Sure, in specific situations there might be. But the costs, benefits, and risks really need to be weighed when you are talking about disturbing the normal balance of your body’s internal milieu.

If you’re telling me I should take a relatively untested drug to treat the common cold, I’d say no. If you’re offering an experimental drug to help me stave off a disease that could potentially kill me in the next three days, I’ll be much more open to experimentation.

So why not study foam rolling?

Let me be clear: I think it should be studied, but I don’t think it’s worth fretting about too much for the following reasons:

1) Variability between individuals will make it extremely difficult to get a good understanding of foam rolling / self massage.

There are some people who observably get no benefit from doing it! There are some people who really, really, really need to be doing it. In a large study with a mixed population, you will almost definitely underestimate or overestimate the real effect of foam rolling and make a general recommendation that still won’t be that useful as a guideline for an individual. More appropriate, I believe, is for individuals to test whether foam rolling and self massage are useful for them.

This situation has happened multiple times in a training scenario:

“My knee hurts whenever I squat (or run or hike or whatever activity). It’s been hurting off and on for the last two years. What can I do? I’ve had it MRIed and X-rayed and nothing shows up. I’ve been stretching, but that isn’t helping. I’ve tried acupuncture. I’ve tried sports massage.”

“Here, let’s have you foam roll a few specific places and ONLY those places and see whether that helps.”

And it does. And it continues to help. Whenever the person fully suspends foam rolling for months at a time (as an experiment, let’s say), the pain comes back.

Foam rolling for that person is clearly good.

The opposite also happens a lot:

“My knee hurts whenever I squat (or run or hike or whatever activity). It’s been hurting off and on for the last two years. What can I do? I’ve had it MRIed and X-rayed and nothing shows up. I’ve been stretching, but that isn’t helping. I’ve tried acupuncture. I’ve tried sports massage.”

“Here, let’s have you foam roll a few specific places and ONLY those places and see whether that helps.”

And it doesn’t. And despite doing it consistently, it doesn’t help at all over a period of time.

Self massage for that person clearly isn’t useful.

You need to test that for every individual anyway, regardless of what happens in the general population. Sometimes a good self massage helps keep muscles feeling happy. Sometimes it doesn’t do anything. Your body, dear reader, can respond unbelievably differently from your neighbor’s!

2) When it works, self-massage is very convenient and give you control over your life.

It’s not quite the same, obviously, but sometimes it’s actually better than a real massage.

I enjoy having someone work on tight areas for me from time to time. But if I’m in the middle of writing a blog post and I feel a shoulder muscle tightening up, I don’t want to have to get up, go to a massage therapist, and have them work out my tightness. I want to be able to take care of my muscle myself, where I am, so I can get back to my work!

3) Self-massage is cheap!

You buy a foam roller or a lacrosse ball and you’re on the way! You roll gently and consistently, and you start noticing muscles relax. Congratulations! You may have just saved hundreds of dollars with a small investment in a little tool!

4) The risks are minimal.

Surgery and medicine can have some pretty drastic side effects. Foam rolling, to my knowledge, has not killed or maimed anyone. If you do it poorly and haphazardly, you can certainly exacerbate physical discomfort, but whatever “bad” thing you do foam rolling can generally be undone with rest, stretching, and/or reactivation of the right muscle groups (which group will vary based on what you did, so that’s some complexity…but extra discomfort is generally not going to kill you).

Let’s say you go too hard and tweak a muscle (I’ve seen this happen and done this to myself). If you do nothing, the muscle general heals up in within a week or two. If you manage to throw all caution to the wind and smash on a nerve (usually it’s the sciatic nerve), it will also eventually calm down (and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson).

5) The payoff is great.

You find it hard to squat. Whenever you lift weights your back gets sore. Whenever you hike your shoulders ache. You integrate some properly applied self massage into your life, and you no longer have to fight with the aches and pains. HUGE payoff.

Final thoughts

Test self-massage on yourself. See what it does for you. If it helps you, it helps you! If it doesn’t, it doesn’t! It’s very simple!

If it doesn’t help, then you can try it for another week. If it still doesn’t help, that’s probably not the key to your problem. Then you’re going to need to look at flexibility and strength to see how to apply those to your situation (that’s where getting an outsider’s perspective from a trainer or a knowledgeable friend can be helpful).


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.