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Impact of foam rolling on the cardiovascular system

by P. Debraux | 16 May 2018

foam roller, foam rolling, self-myofascial release, heart, blood pressure, health, sport, science, nervous system, cardiovascular

We talked about it a few weeks ago in one of our articles, high blood pressure is responsible for nearly 13% of the world's deaths, more than 7 million deaths a year. Indeed, increased blood pressure is an important risk factor for cardiovascular diseases (including stroke and coronary artery disease). Hypertension is characterized by a systolic blood pressure (when the heart contracts) greater than 140 mmHg and a diastolic blood pressure (when the heart relaxes) greater than 90 mmHg. Many factors influence systolic and diastolic blood pressures, including blood volume, arterial wall compliance, and peripheral resistance.

Self-myofascial release, and foam rolling in particular have become very popular among athletes and the general public since a few years, and scientific research shows that they provide mobility benefits (see our articles here, there, and here) and some aspects of recovery (a decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness, in particular). A study that we had discussed a few years ago (read the article) had shown that a foam rolling session could reduce arterial stiffness and increase the plasma concentration of nitrogen oxide, which in turn would lower blood pressure. In addition, one of the main mechanisms of high blood pressure is the disruption of autonomic cardiac function which represents instability in the heart rate control. This is generally identified by measuring cardiac variability and provides a representation of the autonomic balance, that is, the balance between the sympathetic (excitatory) and parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous systems. And a Japanese scientific study has already demonstrated the impact of trigger points on the increase of activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. So, could a foam rolling session have an impact on cardiac autonomic function ?

The Study

To answer this question, American researchers have studied the impact of a single foam rolling session on blood pressure and cardiac variability. For this, they recruited 15 healthy people (7 women and 8 men) who were separated into two groups: an experimental group that performed a foam rolling session and a control group that did nothing. Then all the participants took part in three sessions: a first session of familiarization with the technique and taking measurements and two identical test sessions, each spaced 48 hours apart. During the experimental sessions, the experimental group was asked to perform a foam rolling session with a polystyrene foam roller (15 cm in diameter and 90 cm in length) which consisted of several exercises targeting the adductors, the hamstrings, the quadriceps, the ilio-tibial tractus, the calves, the upper back and the lower back. The participants made 10 passes for each exercise (2s go and 2s back), and each exercise was separated by one minute of rest. The session lasted about 15 minutes. While the control group did nothing and lay on their backs on the floor for 15 minutes.

For the measurements, before, 10 and 30 minutes after, the heart rate variability was evaluated via a heart rate monitor (Polar 800CX) by recording R-R intervals (5 minutes before the experimental session and 3 minutes at 10 and 30 minutes after foam rolling). Thus, were calculated :

  • the RMSSD (root mean square of successive differences in R-R intervals) that reflects the variability of the parasympathetic system,
  • the total power (TP), estimate of the global activity of the autonomic nervous system,
  • the low frequency (LF), marker of the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems,
  • the High frequency (HF), a marker of the activity of the parasympathetic system.

The LF and HF values were normalized (nLF = LF / [LF + HF] and nHF = HF / [LF + HF]) and expressed as a percentage of TP (considered equivalent to LF + HF). Thus, nLF represents the relative contribution of the activity of the sympathetic and nHF, that of the parasympathetic on the sinus node (set of cells located in the upper wall of the right atrium of the heart, whose depolarization controls the normal heart rate). Finally, the nLF / nHF ratio represents the autonomous balance (sympathovagal balance), the relation between the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

In addition, the blood pressure was measured using an automatic oscillometric device at the arm. Two measurements at 1 minute intervals were performed each time (before, after 10 and 30 minutes).

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that a 15-minute foam rolling session produces a decrease in sympathovagal balance and a decrease in blood pressure at 10 and 30 minutes after the end of the session in healthy subjects. As the figures below show, after the foam rolling session, nLF decreased significantly and nHF increased significantly compared to the control group. Which means that the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system has taken over the sympathetic system. These are important results since an increase in the sympathovagal balance is associated with an increase in the cardiovascular risk, thus, the practice of the foam rolling allows in healthy subjects, in an acute way, a diminution of this balance.

Several studies have already shown that foam rolling and trigger point compression allow a reduction of blood pressure by probably improving endothelial function, thanks to the increase in the plasma concentration of nitrogen oxide. Increasing the mechanical pressure applied by the body on the roller could increase blood flow, which in turn would increase the flow stresses on the endothelium which stimulates the production of nitrogen oxide and the vasodilatation of the arteries.

Figure 1. Systolic Blood Pressure.

Figure 2. Diastolic Blood Pressure.

Figure 3. Heart Rate.

Figure 4. Sympathetic Activity.

Figure 5. Parasympathetic Activity.

Figure 6. Sympathovagal Balance.

The researchers hypothesize that the local pressure produced by foam rolling could reduce the activity of the sympathetic nerves by favoring the effect of interstitial receptors that control the autonomic nerves through the stimulation of Ruffini endings. In addition, nitrogen oxide production may play a role in cardiac autonomic function by decreasing sympathetic activity and increasing parasympathetic activity.

Practical Applications

This study shows that a 15-minute foam rolling session reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, increases parasympathetic activity and decreases blood pressure. Foam rolling is easy to put in place and do not take a lot of time. However, the results are obtained in young participants normotensive, and it is impossible to generalize these results to other populations. In addition, it will be necessary to check the impact of a chronic practice on blood pressure and sympathovagal balance.

Of course, the impact of foam rolling on blood pressure is minimal (2-3 mmHg) compared to a more sustained physical activity such as a moderate intensity continuous training (3.5-4.5 mmHg) or H.I.I.T. (8-12 mmHg), or even with drugs (7.3-9.3 mmHg) ( Read our article). However, its use is less restrictive for some people and easier to set up, and foam rolling can be added to any practice or treatment. This is not the solution that will solve the problems of high blood pressure, but it does not hurt to use it. Any profit is good to take.

References

  1. Lastova K, Nordvall M, Walters-Edwards M, Allnutt A and Wong A. Cardiac autonomic and blood pressure responses to an acute foam rolling session. J Strength Cond Res Article in Press, 2018.

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