Should You Foam Roll Your IT Band? Here’s What a PT Wants You To Know

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There are countless circumstances that can lead you to wince in the gym or your living room floor as you foam roll the side of your thigh. If you’ve ever felt this sensitivity, it’s likely that you were rolling on your iliotibial band, aka your IT band. But the question is: Does foam rolling that area actually help?

The IT band (ITB) is a thick fibrous connective tissue that isn't muscle or bone. Think of it as a seat belt-like tissue running along your thigh muscles that extends from the top of your pelvis (ilium) to the top of your knee (tibia). You can compare its consistency to burlap—very stable and inflexible, says Amy Malone PT, MPT, MS, ATC/L, at Redbud Physical Therapy. If it's too tight, it can rub up against your thigh muscles and cause pain.

People come to know IT band complications, like soreness or IT band syndrome for a whole host of reasons, says Malone. You could be a CrossFit athlete doing a lot of jumping or squatting, or you might be a runner who could benefit from deeper stretching. Malone says that you could have weaker thigh muscles that predispose you to IT band pain, and weaker hips or even flat feet can indirectly strain the IT band.

IT band issues are fairly common, so some physical therapists and personal trainers often suggest foam rolling as a potential solution. Generally speaking, there's evidence that foam rolling your body can help promote blood flow, reducing soreness and promoting muscle recovery. But trainers and therapists are split on whether foam rolling your IT band is a good idea. So we asked experts to break down what they know.

The thing about the IT band is that it is not a muscle, Malone says. It is a strip of fascia that isn’t packed with blood vessels, muscle tissue, or even soreness-causing agents like lactic acid. If those things aren’t present, the supposed benefits of foam rolling don’t make sense entirely, she says.

Still, some folks believe that foam rolling can help stretch and improve flexibility in the muscles surrounding your IT band (like the glutes, and hamstrings). If you have chronic pain in your knees, legs, or IT band, self-massage like foam rolling, massage guns, or manual manipulation may promote relaxation which can put less strain on your IT band or joints, says Alan Tomczykowski PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS with BreakThrough Physical Therapy.

Even so, Malone says you should approach your foam roller with caution. If you roll too hard, Malone says you might do more harm than good. For example, fluid-filled sacs beneath the IT band called bursae act as a cushion between the knee bone and the IT band. “If you touch on the outside of your hip, it will most likely be sensitive. Not only is that not abnormal, but this area should be avoided when foam rolling because it can irritate and cause inflammation around the bursae,” says Malone. This is why clinical supervision is critical for this area of the body. Sometimes foam rolling can help, but sometimes it can cause pain and inflammation.

This brings us to another It band observation: Sometimes, foam rolling the area really hurts. So should you be doing something that hurts so much? Not without clinical supervision, Malone stresses. Pain is your body’s way of relaying information, so if you feel like your thigh (or really anywhere on your body) is screaming in agony—don’t force anything. “It’s possible to get too aggressive and either push too hard or stay on the tissue for too long, creating unnecessary microtrauma,” says Dr. Tomczykowski.

In a 2013 study from the Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that participants’ symptoms reduced by 44 percent after 2-6 weeks and experienced a 91.7 percent cure rate at six months. The treatment? A combination of rest, stretching, pain management, and reduction of running frequency or an altogether break. Another small study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy looked at the impact of stretching and foam rolling on IT band and found that a single episode of stretching or foam rolling doesn't yield many short term effects (though the authors do say they could be more beneficial if one foam rolls over time). Ultimately, these findings and the expert advice about taking it easy suggest that overdoing won't lead to better outcomes.

Generally, your body only requires 30-90 seconds of self-massage, foam rolling, or even acupressure to promote the release of tension, says Dr. Tomczykowski. Some discomfort is expected, but it’s not a “no pain, no gain” situation. If your leg is excessively red or bruising appears afterward, you’re foam rolling too hard. Additionally, if getting down on the floor is difficult due to other orthopedic conditions, such as shoulder or knee problems, he says foam rolling may not be a good option. “You’re trying to prevent and reduce inflammation, not create more,” Dr. Tomczykowski says.

The good news is that there are other strengthening techniques and exercises your PT can suggest based on the cause of your pain or injury. These techniques could reduce IT band-related pain more than foam rolling.

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