Smarter Stretch Studio

Why Foam Rolling Isn’t Really Helping Your Knee Pain

fitness, sport, training and lifestyle concept - woman doing pilates on the floor with foam roller.

You have been dutifully rolling before workouts… and after workouts……. and lets face it sometimes even instead of workouts.


Because it works

Well, sort of…..

It’s time to workout. You arrive at the gym and you reach for the foam roller. You lay it down on the floor and take a couple of deep breaths.

Then another couple.

Then you perch your self over top of the roller, plucking up courage, because you know what is coming.

You slowly lower yourself waiting for that all to familiar feeling. There it is, you feel the roller crushing your qaud and the instantaneous pain that goes with it.

You awkwardly drag yourself back and forward along the dirty gym floor wincing with pain. Masochistically searching for the areas that hurt the most. Why? Because they are the trigger points. The holy grail of pain reduction.

After 20 minutes of this self-induced torture you are ready to move onto the next phase in your warm up.

All you have to do is go through 20 minutes of excruciating muscle crushing per day and hey presto your knee feels a little better!

The best part is that thanks to all the wonderful rolling you are free from your knee pain. The pain is gone forever!

Next day you skip out of bed excitedly. And run down the stairs ready to start your day.

Oh wait, that isn’t entirely true… What actually happens is the instant that your foot touches the stair below, you feel the very same knee pain that has been bothering you for years.

It’s ok though, because you have your trusty foam roller, so you can at least make it through your workouts without the knee hurting (too much).

And so the cycle repeats. The scary thing is. Eventually your rolling workout is longer than your actual workout and you still limp every day when you walk down the stairs.

If this sounds familiar I am here to give you some wonderful news.

You don’t have to live with knee pain forever and you don’t have to go through the agony of foam rolling every day.

I know taking the pain of foam rolling is a badge of honour for the hard-core trainer. I used to be that guy. But lets be honest for moment. Wouldn’t you prefer not to do it?

In this article I am going to explain why foam rolling only helps temporarily and what you can do to get rid of the pain permanently.

If foam rolling doesn’t work, then why does it stop my knee hurting? I hear you ask.

To answer this I have to explain a little bit about what pain is and how it is created.

Pain actually lives in your brain. Not your knee. Your brain!

Don’t believe me? Chop your head off and see if your knee still hurts.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But pain really does live in the brain. If it didn’t, pain killers wouldn’t work.

Initially when bodily tissues are inured it is detected by pain sensing nerve cells. Nerves then carry the information to the spinal chord and then to the brain where the information is interpreted as pain.

Your brain then sends the instruction to your body to do something differently to prevent further harm. If you touched a hot stove the action would be to remove your hand so as not to burn your self further. If you rolled your ankle while hiking the pain is telling you to stop walking so the ankle can heal.

For this reason pain can be considered an action signal. Your brain uses it to get your attention.

You only have the ability to consciously process so much information. Unconsciously there are millions of signals being filtered out by your thalamus, but only a small amount makes it to your attention.

As I sit here writing this, there are a number of noises around me. My clock is ticking, the fridge is humming and before I just closed the patio door, there was the construction from outside. Unsurprisingly until the moment I closed the door, the only noise I could hear was the construction

Why? Because it was the loudest, so it got my brain’s attention.

This is how your brain works, often it is just the loudest bit of information that makes it into your conscious awareness.

There are a number of other things that influence pain. In addition to the information coming from pain receptors your brain uses all the other information that it has available.

It uses information from senses like vision, balance, hearing, and smell. It also uses information coming from different types of receptors scattered around the body. There are receptors for movement, pressure, temperature, stretch and vibration.

They all send messages back to the brain along nerves.

Using all of this sensory information your brain makes its decision. Your brain should be getting its movement information mainly from the movement receptors, which are located in your joints.

But, if the information coming from the pain receptors is the most prominent then you will feel pain instead of movement.

If the information coming from the other types of receptors, specifically movement receptors, is clear and concise then your brain doesn’t have to reply solely on the information from the pain receptors. The result is that your knee can move without pain.

There is something important you need to know when it comes to pain!

For a variety of reasons including repeated use, inflammation and stress nerves can become over sensitized leading them to fire off too easily.

Nerves respond to training just like everything else in your body. They adapt and become more efficient. When you lift weights, your muscles get bigger so they can lift more easily. Same thing happens with nerves.

To train a nerve you make it send messages over and over again. The more it gets used the thicker the nerve gets, which means it sends signals faster. The synapse or gap between nerves also gets smaller. Meaning it takes less stimulation to pass its message along to the next nerve.

The reason this is so important is that if your knee has been hurting for years, the nerves will be highly sensitized. They will be just waiting to scream out to your brain.

In the end your brain can start to rely on pain receptors for information instead of using feedback coming from movement receptors. This issue is magnified if lack of mobility means there isn’t much feeback actually coming from the joints

If foam rolling doesn’t work, then why does it stop my knee hurting? I hear you ask AGAIN !!!

When you foam roll, it heavily stimulates the pressure receptors, which send an influx of information to your brain.

The pressure receptors start screaming at your brain to get its attention.

Basically the pressure receptors become louder than the pain receptors, which is why you no longer feel the pain in your knee!

This is also why you still have knee pain the next day. You didn’t actually do anything to address why the knee was hurting in the first place.

(This is also the reason massage only temporarily eases pain.)

So how do you stop your knee from hurting permanently?

If you have been reading along carefully you might already have guessed the answer. You make the other receptors, especially the movement receptors shout louder than the pain receptors!

Actually you they don’t even need to shout. Nerves that carry movement signals are thicker and stronger than those that carry pain messages. So all you need to do is get them talking.

Every time you move a joint it sends feedback to your brain and your brain creates a kind of map of the different parts of your body. If this communication process happens constantly the map is clear and your brain doesn’t have to ask the pain receptors what is going on.

Which means you won’t feel pain in your knee.

Right now you might be thinking…. Hold on my knee moves every day. It sends feedback every time I walk, so that can’t be my problem.

And this is a fair thing to think. But the body works as a whole. All your joints need to be sending information to your brain.

Wearing shoes compresses joints in the feet. Years of wearing shoes really compress joints in the feet.

Most people also spend far too much time sitting, which reduces feedback to the hips.

So unless you have very specifically addressed both of these areas and every other joint in your body, reduced feeback will be contributing to your knee pain. (Feet, hips, the spine, and hands are all very prone to joint restrictions)

Forget the rest of the body for a second, when the joints directly above and below the knee aren’t sending sufficient feedback. It is hardly surprising that your brain feels threatened and wants to get your attention somehow.

To change all this you need to re-educate your brain with good information. Whilst long term you need to improve all of your sensory feedback, the best place to start is with training the movement receptors.

You can very quickly improve sensory feedback from movement receptors. All you need to do make sure all of your joints are moving properly and frequently.

Once your brain sees that all of your joints are moving properly it will no longer rely on that pesky pain receptor in your knee.

Instead of bludgeoning your poor muscles at the start of the workout, why not move all of your joints? To learn more about overcoming chronic injuries follow the link below.

Learn more about dealing with chronic injuries


Our goal at Smarter Stretch Studio goal is to help as many people as possible. So if you liked this article and found it helpful please share it with your friends. We really appreciate it and we really appreciate you!

– Richard – 

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