Rolling with it…

Self Massage

Why should I consider doing it?

Ok, what is self massage?

Consider it the poor man’s massage in self care to body maintenance especially if you are an active individual or recovering from injury or other soft tissue conditions contributing to your pain.  As physical therapists, we help guide our clients to actively participating with their PT treatment programs.  Soft tissue dysfunction can affect how we move and in some cases cause more harm than good. 

Without getting overly technical about the physiology of the soft tissue structures, the thing people need to know is that PAIN IS NOT NORMAL!  Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.  Seek professional help from a live person (like a physical therapist or an orthopedist) to determine if the problem area is more serious or if it can be managed with a little guidance and expertise from folks who see musculoskeletal conditions day in and day out.  The longer you wait to address the problem, the more chronic it becomes and the longer it takes to remedy as your body begins to accommodate a new normal which isn’t always a good thing. The Tools
There are a multitude of specialty massage tools out on the market.  I have no affiliation with any of them, nor do I endorse any one particular tool.  I will not go into detail as to use of the tools here.  I am giving a basic overview of the more popular massage toys available.  I have tried many of them and recommended many of these tools based on economics and ease of use.  Clients usually want ease of use and ease of cost on the wallet. 

The simplest of tools…the almighty tennis ball.  Just firm enough, small enough and maneuverable enough to be used almost anywhere.  Great for first time users and easily found in the store.  They come in 3 packs which is great.  The busy traveling client can keep one at home, the office and one for travel.  For a localized massage like your upper back, neck, glute or your hamstring…the tennis ball fits the bill quite nicely. 

Tennis ball not firm enough?  Try a lacrosse ball.  It can do anything the tennis ball can do with less give.  Still not firm enough?  I’ve had clients go as far as using baseballs and softballs to perform this form of localized self massage as well. Next up, the foam roller.  There are a lot of choices in this department with varying firmness, colors, sizes, and prices.  There is the standard foam roller, the rumble roller (has little “knobby teeth”), and the TP trigger point roller (the original quad roller and the “grid” roller).  Most folks can tolerate the standard firm foam roller with a few tears and maybe a few grumbles of choice words, and it’s the most economical.  I would say about 90% of the clients I ask to invest in a foam roller for their self care activities will be swearing a lot when they first use it especially on their IT bands.  Rest assured with consistent use it will feel better.  Foam rollers come in a “short version” or the “full size” 3 foot version.  They can be used to roll on a multitude of body parts: front/side/back of the legs, your backside, and your back (upper and lower segments). 

For those needing something a bit deeper and firm, try the Rumble Roller or the TP trigger point products.  Great on the leg muscles and the back.  However do know that cost will go up with the fancier toys.  These tools are not for the novice users.  They provide a fairly firm platform to get an effective self massage.  They also travel well and fit into your luggage with minimal space usage.  If the foam roller is just not doing it for you, then your next best bet is to give these products a worthy try as they will “dig a little deeper.”With the rollers, you do have to have some degree of upper body strength to maneuver on them and even a little bit of flexibility and coordination.  The majority of folks should have little difficulty as their limiter will be their upper body strength.

Another great tool that travels well (though be aware that it must be in your CHECKED luggage), is “The Stick.”  I have heard from clients that their “Sticks” have been confiscated by TSA since it exceeds the length restriction and is deemed a weapon.  I guess you could use it as a weapon but it’s made of plastic and I doubt that it would do that much damage.  Nonetheless, it is something to be aware of if owners plan to carry on their “Stick” TSA may take it.  So what is it?  “The Stick” is a kind of like a rolling pin except it is made of hard plastic rings on a “stick” with handles on either end.  You use your hands to roll the stick on yourself (legs mostly) and apply as much or as little pressure as you want.  I have found this tool to be great for travel (when packed appropriately) and used on the legs.  I prefer the rollers as I tend to be (self admittedly) get lazy trying to use my hands to roll it on myself.  With the rollers I use my own body weight to create the force necessary to “massage” myself.So why mention these tools in the first place?  Let’s face it, if everyone had a bottomless bank account to get deep tissue work on a weekly or even daily basis, there would be a lot of busy sports massage folks earning a very nice living.  The reality is that most of us don’t have that type of disposable income.  BUT are these tools effective?  Yes, with consistent use to insure ideal body maintenance.  They do help with the flexibility and pliability of the muscle tissue as well as improved mobility of the connective tissue associated to help keep the tissue happy as we go about our daily grind.  Massage is great for improving blood flow and lymphatic flow to aid in flushing out our body’s waste products and bring in healthy nutrients to optimize recovery.  It also helps to physically break down any problem areas to normalize the tissue.  With that said, skilled hands are better, but self massage is better than nothing.  Happy rolling!

Dr. Jamie So

Jamie So, PT, DPT, is the owner and physical therapist of Manual Therapy Effects.

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