I wanted to get your opinion about using the foam roller on the IT band with a firm roller. My understanding is that you can certainly massage and gently stretch the IT band, but it is supposed to be taut because it helps to support the lateral leg muscles. People feel a difference between the IT band and the quad muscles. They assume they need to loosen this up. So maybe there are no adhesions, but what they are feeling is the normal tension of the tissue. I think it is ok to roll it out gently, but not to push it. What do you think?
Thanks for the email. This is a great question. I’ve had it in mind to address this question for a few weeks now.
In the past few weeks a couple of different articles on using a foam roller on the IT Band have been posted online with different opinions on the benefits of foam roller self massage therapy.
In the first article, Stop foam rolling your IT Band, the author, Greg Lehman, is a bit critical of using the foam roller on the IT Band. He makes a good argument that there is very little benefit to rolling the IT band due to the fact that it is dense connective tissue with limited ability to be lengthened or change.
In the second article, Is Foam Rolling Bad for You?, Michael Boyle defends the use of a foam roller on the IT Band and makes an excellent case of the benefits on foam roller massage therapy.
I agree with completely with Michael Boyle’s article. I find foam roller massage therapy to be hugely beneficial to healing, recovery, and injury prevention. I also agree a little bit with Greg Lehman about the futility of using a foam roller on the IT Band.
Here is my take:
Most people spend way to much time with a foam roller on the IT Band at the neglect of the other and more beneficial areas of their legs, hips, and shoulders.
The IT Band is white, tendinous fascial tissue, which means it receives less blood flow and has less ability to “release” compared to muscle tissue such as the glutes. The IT Band is also incredibly strong. I’ve heard awesome anatomist and movement therapist, Kathy Dooley, say that if you connected the IT Band behind two trucks moving in opposite directions, it wouldn’t stretch or tear. If the power of two trucks won’t change this tissue, a foam roller on the IT Band probably won’t change it much either.
The IT Band attaches directly to the gluteals and tensor fascia latae (TFL), the tension in the gluteals and TFL pull through the IT Band down to the knee and ankle. Most pain that is felt in the IT Band, outside of knee (runner’s knee), and ankle is more than likely caused by dysfunction in the muslces located in the gluteals, TFL, and adductors. Adhesions do form in the IT Band, especially closer to the knee. However, in my experience as a movement therapist, I find the majority of adhesions which affect the IT Band are located in the dense tissue of the gluteals and TFL. Most people have minimal adhesions directly within the IT Band itself.
How this translates with using a foam roller on the IT Band
When you roll the IT Band and neglect the adductors, glutes, and TFL, you will only get temporary relief, not lasting change. As soon as you stand up, the restrictions in the adductors, glutes and TFL will once again pull through the IT Band.
You will get greater change in the IT Band tissue, increases in range of motion of the hips, and reduction of pain and discomfort by breaking down adhesions in the TFL, gluteals, and adductors. This is especially helpful for people new to using a foam roller, since rolling the IT Band can be very painful. If you spend a few minutes working through the gluteals and TFL first, when you roll on the IT Band it will be significantly less painful.
I believe that if you only roll out the IT Band and neglect other areas of your body, you could be asking for trouble. By loosening up just one side of the hips and knee, the opposing sides tighten to take up the slack. This could create imbalances in your movement patterns, as well as your body’s ability to stabilize the knee and hip joints. This is the big reason why I recommend to clients that they spend equal time addressing their entire body. The goal is to bring balance to the tissue, not to only work what feels good.
Personally, I do occasionally use a foam roller on the IT Band. It feels good and I can feel the benefit. But it is an area that I spend a minimal amount of time on. If I only have a short amount of time to roll, I roll the adductors, TFL, glutes, and calves. I won’t hit the IT Band at all.
Something to note: If you are using a foam roller on your IT Band to treat a painful condition, but you get only temporary relief and the pain continues to come back, then the IT Band is not the problem. In this case, I highly recommend seeking the help of a highly skilled movement therapist who can assess movement dysfunction and develop a personalized exercise program specific to your needs.
On another note, when I perform deep tissue massage therapy on a client, I rarely focus any time directly on the IT Band for the same reasons listed above.
Here are some articles with examples of how to perform foam roller therapy.