Self myofascial release – or SMR – is a form of tool-assisted, self-massage that is used to help with muscle and joint pain. Essentially, SMR requires you to self-massage your muscles with a foam roller, a firm massage ball or a massage stick/roll to help relieve certain areas of pain.
To best understand SMR, you must first understand what fascia is. Put simply, fascia is connective tissue that is found throughout our body. It covers our muscles (myofascia), visceral organs, nerves, blood vessels, and even our cells. Many of our organs are essentially held together, and in place, by fascial tissue.
Linking to this, one of the theories behind the physiological effects of SMR is that it is able to clear up restrictions and muscle knots, whilst also breaking down adhesions and scar tissue. This, in turn, is believed to lead to an increase in the flexibility of soft tissue, whilst also improving the range of joint motion – successfully reducing pain.
Research into SMR is quite limited however, and evidence of the effectiveness of this treatment modality is still emerging. That said, early results do indicate that SMR (including foam-rolling) may be effective for relieving post exercise-related muscle soreness (DOMS) and fatigue as well as have a positive effect on joint range of motion.
In regards to SMR as a means of treating chronic muscle and joint pain (such as myofascial pain syndrome), there is little supportive evidence. Recently published research for example, determined that SMR had a minor and sometimes negligible effect on recovery. It did point out, though, that it could be relevant in some cases.
It isn’t fully understood how SMR works, and what exact effect it has on the muscles and fascia – though research has found that such treatment cannot transform or change connective muscle tissue, as it is simply not possible to do so by human touch or pressure from a tool, such as a ball or foam roller.
That said, there is no harm in trying SMR to relieve your pain. Whilst it should not be the main focus of your treatment, applying sustained pressure, or rolling on a muscle with a massage device, in areas that feel tight, may help (at least short term) to desensitise pain and the sensation of tightness. As a result, you may find you are able to move or exercise more freely.
If you are going to give SMR a try, the best tools to use depends on the area of the body you want to target. A foam-roller, for example, is usually good for larger muscle groups in the glutes, thighs, hamstrings, lats and perhaps the calves. And a small firm ball (perhaps a tennis ball) can be good for targeting your chest, along with the smaller muscles around your shoulder blade.
It’s important to point out that SMR should never be the only course of action to decrease the sensation of muscular tightness.
General physical activity for example, along with specifically moving and contracting your muscles through strengthening and dynamic stretches, is an effective way to reduce pain and relieve the feeling of muscular tightness. And, as opposed to SMR, such focused and targeted exercise also has a number of other health benefits, too – making it really worthwhile to work out what works best for you.
To learn more about how exercise and other treatments can help to relieve symptoms of muscle and joint pain, check out this blog post for more helpful pointers.