I’ll start with a disclaimer. While I’m roughly 100% sure the following statements are true, they do represent my opinion, which is not necessarily a widespread opinion.

I’ll be putting quotation marks on “myofascial release” (“MFR”) because I don’t believe the techniques that people call “MFR” produce any actual myofascial release.

In my opinion, much of what “MFR” actually does is help warm you up and possibly help a particular structure feel temporarily looser or less painful. Extreme pain stimulates sort of a hyper warm up where you get more adrenaline and reduce pain sensitivity, so doing painful things to yourself can help you feel better temporarily. It’s just harnessing the response of the body to physical activity or stressful situations. Think about when you have major muscle soreness and tightness but then warm up and don’t feel sore any more. Did warming up actually heal your muscles? No, of course not. You’re just not feeling the pain. After the workout reality sets in, and you are sore and tight again. Or think about when a basketball player sprains an ankle but then tapes it up and waits 10 minutes and is able to finish the game. But then the next day he’s on crutches. How the heck was he able to finish the game?! The body can change states drastically from when you first wake up in the morning, to being stressed out at work, to right after a big meal, to the heat of an intense physical competition. Included in those different states is the ability to warm up and loosen up structures and not feel pain. “MFR” taps into that ability.

So let’s say I want to work out, but I’m feeling tired and sore. If I foam roll, I will feel better after and then maybe have a faster, more energetic warm up. Of course I could just warm up without foam rolling and end up in the same condition, but maybe I prefer to foam roll first. Or let’s say my calf muscle is bothering me. Digging a lacrosse ball into it in an extremely painful way might actually make it feel better temporarily. So maybe I choose to do that before workouts.

Along with feeling better, you will also find that mobility improves after “MFR,” because mobility improves when you warm up. What people need to understand is that this is not indicative of any permanent change in mobility or flexibility. It’s just part of the body’s temporary response. And again this can be done without “MFR”. For making actual permanent changes to your flexibility, stretching is what actually works.

That’s what I believe is the reality of “MFR.”

In fantasy land what many claim is that “MFR” is “releasing tissue adhesions” or “breaking down scar tissue.” I’ve even heard “pushing scar tissue into the blood stream.” It’s like they think they’re performing surgery with a lacrosse ball. In actuality, they have no idea what impact they are having on the tissue underneath the skin. I would argue that, if anything, it is just inflicting tissue damage and not helping in any way. But people think they’re improving mobility or getting treatment for an injury because it feels better after whatever torture method was used on it. It totally makes sense that smashing a strained muscle with a barbell is going to help it heal, right?

I don’t want to make any sweeping statements like, “No one has ever made positive change to tissue using any sort of implement or manual technique.” I am just saying I am highly skeptical of many of the claims that people make about what they are accomplishing through what they call myofascial release.

Regarding flexibility and healing injuries, there are a couple things that may legitimately be accomplished by these methods. First, if a muscle is in a hypertonic state (involuntarily contracting more than it should), digging a thumb, baton, lacrosse ball, etc into that muscle for a few minutes may cause it to relax more. And that may be critical to eliminating pain. But it has nothing to do with breaking down tissue. The second possibly legitimate thing accomplished by MFR has to do with the electric gradient in the body. Understanding in this area is extremely limited, but basically the human body is supposed to have a positive to negative electric gradient from the torso out to the extremities. Injuries can cause this gradient to get flipped around backwards, which for some reason prevents healing. Stimulating extreme pain in an area disrupts the gradient, which somehow encourages the body to correct the gradient and then heal itself properly. I realize this sounds like voodoo or something. For more info, check out The Body Electric.

To sum things up, I believe “MFR” warms you up and stimulates an increase in adrenaline and a reduction in pain sensitivity. If people like to use that to prepare for workouts, that is their choice. Personally I don’t care to put myself through pain just to warm up. “MFR” does not improve flexibility except in a situation where a muscle is hypertonic. As far as healing injuries, if “MFR” is successful, it is likely the result of an impact on the body’s electric gradient and not physical changes to soft tissue.