Have you ever foam rolled your IT band to relieve knee pain, hip pain or general discomfort in your upper leg? If so, you’re not alone. Foam rolling the IT band is one of the most frequently recommended techniques to improve recovery and alleviate pain in the upper thigh.
However, if you look closely at the anatomy of the IT band, you will realize that rolling it may actually make your problem worse.
Here’s everything you need to know about the potential issues with foam rolling your IT band, and what to do instead.
What is the IT Band?
The IT Band, or iliotibial band, is a thick tendon that runs along the outside of the thigh from the hip to the knee. Your glutes and TFL connect to the IT Band, and together help to move the hip and stabilize the knee.
The most common injury to the IT band is known as IT band syndrome, which is inflammation that results in minor to severe knee or thigh pain. IT band syndrome is typically caused by overuse from running, cycling or other repetitive activities; however, squatting with poor form can also be a culprit.
IT band syndrome is typically treated with rest, cold therapy, stretching and foam rolling. Foam rolling the IT band involves slowly rolling the side of your thigh, starting just above the knee and working your way up to the hip. This can be quite painful at first, but the idea is to break up adhesions and improve the length of the IT band to reduce pain.
Why Foam Rolling Your IT Band Doesn’t Work
Foam rolling works by helping a muscle relax and move more easily with the fascia, or connective tissue, that surrounds it.
What it doesn’t do is “break up knots” or muscle adhesions. People will say this is what’s taking place, but numerous physical therapy studies indicate otherwise. Also, actually breaking up a muscle adhesion would require far more force than what a roller can produce—and inflicting that much force may not be healthy for the tissue anyway.
For more details on how this works, check out our comprehensive article on foam rolling.
Problem is, the IT band isn’t a muscle. You can’t help it relax because it doesn’t contract. It’s a totally different structure.
To make matters worse, a nerve runs through the IT band. Most IT band-related pain is the result of inflammation that puts pressure on that nerve. To fix this issue, you need to relieve the pressure. But foam rolling only adds to it.
“Most IT band issues that center around the knee or hip are mostly compression type injuries, so why would we want to add more compression to an already compressed area to create healing?,” asks Dr. Matt Stevens, physical therapist and owner of Pure Physio (Strongsville, Ohio). “It’s counterproductive.”
How to Relieve IT Band Issues
To fix IT band syndrome or other IT band issues, you need to reconsider your approach. We often fall into the trap of focusing our efforts on the painful area. Though that is well intentioned, it often doesn’t address the source of the pain.
Instead, Stevens advises to foam roll the muscles that surround the IT band, particularly the quads, hamstrings and glutes. The IT band may be forced to compensate and pick up the slack if these muscles aren’t functioning properly. The result is an overworked and inflamed IT band—one that’s more likely to cause problems.
Foam rolling the areas around the IT band helps the muscles and tendons in the thighs work like a well-oiled machine.
Here are the three foam rolling exercises that Stevens recommends. You can perform them daily before or after a workout, or for general maintenance and recovery. Spend about one minute on each muscle.
Foam Roll Quads
How to: Start with one quad on a roller just above your knee and slowly work your way up to the top of your thigh. Keep your knee slightly bent to create some length in the muscle. Focus on the inside, middle and outside portion of the muscle.
Foam Roll Hamstrings
How to: Start with one hamstring on a roller just above your knee and slowly work up toward your hip, focusing on the inside, middle and outside of the muscle.
Foam Roll Glutes
How to: Sit with your right hip on the foam roller and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Slowly roll over your glute, focusing on tender areas.
I foam roll my IT Band and it feels great. What gives?
If you count yourself among the people who swear by foam rolling their IT Band, more power to you. If it doesn’t bother you and you experience improvement, feel free to continue your routine.
However, if you have stubborn pain that simply doesn’t go away, it may be time to reevaluate your approach.