What is Foam Rolling Really Doing to Your Spine?

What is Foam Rolling Really Doing to Your Spine?

If you’re not an athlete the chances are that the area of the body you foam roll the most is your mid and upper back. This area of the back is prone to getting stiff and achy, especially after a long day working at a computer, but foam rolling can provide excellent relief. Lets talk about why...

The area of the spine that forms the mid back is called the Thoracic spine. It is made from 12 boney vertebrae with pairs of facet joints in-between each vertebrae to the one directly above and below. These sequential pairs of facet joints facilitate all the movement in the spine and allow us to move. They are the only joints in the body that is safe, effective and necessary to foam roll. 

Using a foam roller on the mid back applies pressure to individual vertebrae causing localised extension between one vertebrae in relation to its neighbour. This allows the facet joints to separate and promotes movement at that joint level, helps synovial lubrication of the joint and maintains good spinal health and mobility. 

It also encourages the spine to move into extension which is the movement vector we most commonly lose due to our modern work and social positions. 

How Do We Know This

We can tell joint mobility and the separation of the facet joints is happening because of the pops and clicks you sometimes hear when you are foam rolling the back. These noises are called cavitations, and it is exactly the same process as when you see an osteopath or chiropractor and they manipulate your Thoracic spine. 

Cavitation’s only occur when synovial joints, which are joints that have a capsule around them with synovial fluid inside such as the spinal facet joints, are separated. The fast separation of these joints causes a small vacuum inside the joint capsule which release gases. As these gases dissolve into the synovial fluid the create the noises you hear. These cavitation can often lead to the sense of relief and improved mobility. 

The reason facet joints in the mid and upper back respond well to foam rolling is partly due to their shape which allows foam rolling to gently gap the joints but also because they sit under muscles and soft tissue which act as a natural cushion for them. This is in contrast to the joints in your arms and legs that should never be foam rolled as they have very little soft tissue padding around them and can easily be extended into unnatural positions leading to ligament irritation. 

In general you shouldn’t foam roll over the bodies bony prominences which often occur around the bigger joints of the body. Repeated foam rolling can result in inflammation of the periosteum, which is the vascular outer layer of bone, as well as being very uncomfortable without achieving any positive results. One reason the Manta foam roller has the spinal groove is to allow it to miss the boney nodules of the spine to reduce discomfort and the risk of irritation from rolling directly on the spinal bones. 

When Not to Foam Roll the Back 

There are of course times when foam rolling the mid back is not suitable or should only be done after talking to a medical professional. 

  • If pain in the mid back has come on very suddenly and is sharp or acute. 
  • If the pain is more than 3/4 out of 10 on the pain scale. 
  • Following a trauma or physical accident.
  • Never foam roll over an area of noticeable bruising.
  • If you have a fever or are generally unwell.
  • If the pain is waking you up at night or you have been suffering with night sweats or weight loss.



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