When I started training for my first race, I became fast friends with my foam roller. At the time, I didn’t know any better, so I rolled, jammed lacrosse balls into tight knots and hoped for the best. I chalked it up to the toughness required of the sport. Despite my dutiful rolling, the same aches and pains returned. When something is tight, it’s our natural instinct to rub it until it feels better. But what if there’s a better way?
Consider this: often the thing that’s tight and painful is merely a symptom of a larger issue. For instance, clients will often come to me with tight hip flexors or painful hamstrings. They experience some relief through rolling and stretching, but it’s short-lived and they must roll and stretch often to maintain feeling looser.
Physical therapist and movement expert Gray Cook said it well: If your foam roller hasn’t fixed it by now, it probably isn’t going to. This is a sign that the pain is merely a symptom of something else and proof of why chasing pain around the body is such an easy game to get lost in. One that often has no end.
Tight muscles often indicate that something else is unstable, such as a nearby joint or that you’re having trouble activating proper core stability. So if you’ve developed a hip imbalance over the years from too much sitting or riding or even as the result of a fall you took years ago, it’s quite possible that nearby muscles will step in and brace to provide the nervous system with a sense of safety and stability.
Our first instinct is often to try to release what’s painful or tight. But by releasing the tight hip flexor or rolling the hamstring, we’re actually shooting the messenger by taking away the body’s compensation strategy that was put in place to try to create stability and keep us safe. Release a muscle deep enough or repeatedly and the body will eventually be forced to find a new strategy or compensation pattern. A muscle’s primary function is to contract and relax, not brace for long periods of time. This can set you up for injury.
This is also how tight hamstrings can morph into IT band or low back pain. You may finally get relief from the hamstring, but now you’ve got a new symptom to deal with. As we pass the buck around, we’re getting further and further from treating the source of the problem and leaving more for us to unravel later.
The major concern with each new compensation we create (moving from hamstring to IT band pain), is that our structure is becoming more and more unstable as we continue to play this game of releasing what’s tight. Eventually the body will run out of bracing strategies and this is often when those silly accidents happen like bending down to pick something up and feeling your back go out.
At this point, you’ve withdrawn all the funds from your compensation bank account and injury occurs. You might go for an MRI and be diagnosed with a bulging or degenerative disc, but this, again, is merely a symptom of a larger issue. Just treat the disc and you’re missing the big picture.
How to uncover the Underlying Problem
“The victim cries out, but the criminal is silent.” This is one of my favorite quotes about pain by PT Adam Wolf. The big takeaway is to acknowledge the victim (pain) but to search for the criminal (the true cause of your painful symptoms).
It’s important to understand that you may not be able to find the criminal without the help of a movement professional. Old injuries, even from decades ago, poor breathing patterns, improper core engagement along with physiological imbalances and past traumas that keep the body stuck in a state of stress can all contribute to the nervous system feeling unsafe and unstable, cueing nearby muscles to step in and brace for extra support.
Understanding why the body responds the way it does is half the battle.
If you’ve been rolling and releasing something tight, try lightly strengthening it and take a closer look at your form or have a professional give you feedback. Try to actively engage your core as you move and lift things. Slow down your movement and tune into your body to become more aware of areas you struggle with movement or feel limited. Above all else, seek help when it feels like the wheels are falling off. Don’t wait for the problem to worsen and grow into a larger issue that could result in time away from doing the activities you love.