This is a guest post by Andrea Wool, fellow fibromyalgia warrior and founder of Autoimmune Strong, a fitness program developed for those with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. This post contains affiliate links.
I was an active person before fibromyalgia changed my body. I was a go-getter, someone who threw myself into my long work days. I was a long distance runner, a gym rat, a skier. I was someone who loved to go out, to travel, to hike and camp, the life of the party.
That all changed once fibromyalgia hit. I went from this person who lived a full life to someone who struggled to get off the couch. I lived with debilitating exhaustion and fatigue, and every daily activity was a challenge. On the surface, I looked normal, like nothing was wrong. But inside, to say I was struggling was an understatement.
After my diagnosis, I tried to resume my old life. That included time in the gym. I knew exercise was good for my body. Medical studies have shown exercise can actually reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia, but these studies also indicate it is important to manage the levels of intensity of exercise in order to achieve positive results.
I had experienced this firsthand. All the exercise I was trying to do (modeled after my pre-diagnosis exercise routine) wasn’t making me feel good. Instead, it was making me feel worse.
I knew I had to try something new and change up my exercise routine. At the time, self-myofascial release, otherwise known as foam rolling, was getting some press as the hot, new fitness trend. Prior to this, I had found massage to be successful at reducing my pain, but it wasn’t something I could do all the time because it was too expensive, required too much time and scheduling, and was often so intense I needed a lot of recovery time. Foam rolling seemed like a good alternative.
Once I tried it, I fell in love. Well, love-hate, which I will explain in a bit.
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a method of reducing muscle tension using a combination of a roller and your body’s pressure. It works in three important ways:
#1 Foam rolling helps to loosen fascial tissue
Fascia is the connective tissue that wraps around our muscles. If you imagine an electrical wire, the fascia is like the rubber that protects the live wires. In a similar way, fascia wraps around our muscles to keep them safe and secure.
However, as we age, fascia can get tight and inflexible, and glob onto the muscles, making it difficult for them to work properly. This causes pain within the body, and for people living with fibromyalgia, this additional pain can be excruciating. Foam rolling loosens up the fascia, relieving the discomfort and allowing the muscles to work properly.
#2 Foam rolling helps to relieve tight muscles
Our muscles work together in a pulley system in our body. Every muscle connects to another muscle. As we get older, and physical patterns take hold in our body, certain muscles get too tight while others become weak. This creates muscular imbalances, causing pain in the body. This pain is magnified in a body living with fibromyalgia.
Here’s an example of a common muscular imbalance: We sit a lot on couches, at our computers, in our cars, etc. As we sit, our hip muscles shorten and become tight, and our gluteal muscles get weak. Eventually that relationship loses its structural stability. The tight hips can’t be balanced out by the weak glutes, and this can result in low back pain, as the back muscles try to overcompensate for the weakened gluteal muscles.
Foam rolling can help loosen up these tight muscles, allowing the muscular system to come back into balance. It’s important to note here that balance can’t be achieved until you also work to strengthen the weak muscle, but foam rolling the tight muscle is a good place to start.
Additionally, by relieving these tight muscles, we can reduce the pressure and tension on our joints, which can reduce our joint pain.
#3 Foam rolling helps to reduce muscular knots
People living with fibromyalgia often have a large number of muscular knots in their bodies, and these knots can be a major source of pain. Knots respond to pressure and eventually release after pressure is applied. This is how foam rolling works!
Is foam rolling good for people with fibromyalgia?
Yes! Foam rolling can be very beneficial. By releasing the pain caused by tight fascia, muscles and muscle knots, people with fibromyalgia can move with more ease. They experience a reduction in stiffness, joint pain, muscle aches and general physical discomfort.
However, there are a couple of really important things to know before you begin a foam-rolling practice if you have fibromyalgia.
#1 Foam rolling hurts, especially in the beginning
There is no easy way to say this: Foam rolling can be extremely painful, especially during the first few days. If your fascia is tight, or you have lots of muscular knots, foam rolling can be tough as you work through it, but eventually the pain will go away, and you will be able to foam roll with (relative) ease.
#2 Foam rolling can release long-held toxins
Toxins come from many sources including the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat. Our bodies often have a hard time flushing these toxins out. Foam rolling can help this process along by pushing long-held toxins out of the fascia and muscle tissue.
In the beginning, however, this can overload your system. It’s important to go slowly and gently into the foam-rolling process.
(Quick note from Donna: Drinking lots of water and using a good binder like bentonite clay in tandem with foam rolling can help absorb the released toxins and flush them from your body more quickly, reducing inflammation and pain.)
#3 Foam rolling can also release painful emotions
We store a lot of our emotions in our physical body. People with fibro often feel a flood of emotion when they begin to foam roll as their stored pain begins to release. Again, like the toxins, this will pass, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself crying during or after your foam rolling sessions. It will actually feel good to release those emotions.
Is there a risk of a fibro flare with foam rolling?
The short answer is yes. I would love to tell you otherwise, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give you the full information about the risks and rewards of foam rolling. The rewards are substantial, but due to the intense nature of foam rolling, there is a risk of a fibro flare, especially in the beginning of the process.
The key to foam rolling without triggering a flare is to follow these guidelines:
Listen to your body. If your pain is excruciating, then just start with a small bit of foam rolling – from 5-30 seconds – and start with one body part at a time.
Take rest days in between. Don’t foam roll every day. If you are sore, make sure you give yourself time to recover before you do it again.
Slowly build up your tolerance. Don’t rush it! Change takes time.
Okay, I am interested in foam rolling, but where do I start?
All you need is a foam roller! There are different foam rollers with different densities, bumps and other features so look for one that has a level of intensity that matches your body. (If you are super sensitive and flare easily, start with the softest one. I recommend this one).
If you google foam rolling, you will find tons of how-to videos that are quite good at teaching the actual movements. Start with the big muscles, like your quads, calves and hamstrings. You can even foam roll the bottoms of your feet with a tennis or golf ball!
If you feel a spot that is more intense than others, that is a muscle knot. I recommend holding foam-rolling pressure on knots for 30 seconds (or as long as your body can take the intensity; you may need to start with just 5 seconds). That will begin the process of releasing the knot and relieving pain in the body.
However, as someone living with fibromyalgia, I encourage you to consider a few things before starting a foam-rolling practice. As I mentioned above, foam rolling can cause a flare if not done right. For people with limited strength, it can be difficult to begin because a standard foam-rolling routine requires the ability to get up and down from the floor as well as significant core and arm strength. Foam rolling on its own without additional strength training is not as effective.
If you are nervous about trying foam rolling on your own and want some guidance on how to do it safely without a flare, I want to share with you the 7-day free trial of Autoimmune Strong. Autoimmune Strong is an online fitness program designed for people living with chronic pain. It teaches everything you need to know about building strength and energy through exercise without triggering a flare. There is an entire section dedicated to foam rolling for pain reduction as well as instruction on how to make modifications if it’s too difficult.
Additionally, Autoimmune Strong will help you gain the core and arm strength you need to be able to foam roll effectively. All of this is done in a way to help you reduce pain and gain energy without kick-starting a flare.
Check out the 7-day free trial here, and begin the journey to feeling good in your body again!
Andrea Wool is a personal trainer living with fibromyalgia and multiple autoimmune conditions. She is the founder of Autoimmune Strong, the first online exercise program designed to help people with chronic illness regain their strength and energy through exercise. She is a wife, a daughter and a mom to two crazy boys, and lives in Massachusetts. To learn more about Andrea and her story of illness to recovery, follow her on Facebook, Instagram or on her blog.