Ask the Doc: Should You Foam Roll? Do You Know What Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control Is?

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by JAKE MCCROWELL|DPT, CMTPT

Ask the Doc: Should You Foam Roll?
Today we are going to talk about stimulating your senses.

No, this is not a post about how great that 5 gum is. It’s about this question: “Why in the world do we foam roll?”

Foam rolling is a technique to stimulate your muscles, specifically through diffuse noxious inhibitory control. [Read our past coverage on the importance of foam rolling]

We can stimulate our muscles in a variety of ways — one way is through pain/nociception (“mashing” them with lacrosse balls and foam rolls) thereby producing a short-term effect known as diffuse noxious inhibitor control. Diffuse noxious inhibitory control (DNIC) is one of several varieties of “descending modulation,” by which the brain alters the amount of nociception (pain) signal coming in.

Basically you are tricking your body to listen to another signal louder – the other signal being the tenderness from the foam roll.
[F]oam rolling may be most beneficial as part of your dynamic warm-up, and not needed for your cool down.
Your brain gets a lot of data (noise) from the body and the outside world (and we mean A LOT; think billions of inputs) and it needs to pick out the appropriate information, or signals, to listen to. The information that is most worthwhile from a protective and self-preservation aspect gets priority. This is why you are not constantly getting information that your legs are touching the denim or cotton from your pants from all the sensory inputs on your skin: it is not a priority. (I hope you are wearing pants when you read this!)

So what gets priority? Pain signals get priority, because they typically are trying to tell you something is wrong and potentially life-threatening. Just like a crying newborn can’t tell you it is hungry, your body uses pain to tell you something is wrong because it hasn’t figured out to tell you specifically it is the L5 posterolateral nucleus pulposus or a dysfunctional quadratus lumborum. (That would make our job as PTs easy, wouldn’t it?!)

That Is a Lot of Data…

That Is a Lot of Data...

Pain signals get priority, because they typically are trying to tell you something is wrong and potentially life-threatening.
If you put in a new pain signal, the body will pick up on that and not the old pain signal. DNIC means that the brain limits or stops other nociceptive signals — like the patient’s complaint of pain — from traveling up the spinal cord to the brain. So if we use a foam roll or similar apparatus (I suggest a wine bottle; tell your patients to drink up during rolling and by the time the bottle is empty I can assure near full pain relief…) then we are overloading the brain with so much “good” pain noise that it will focus its signal on that sensation rather than the other nociceptive input and release some new pain-relieving endorphins for the new signal.

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