A great article by Robert Camacho, titled Your IT Band is Not the Enemy (But Maybe Your Foam Roller Is), neatly summarizes one of the many shifting-the-burden systems that we encounter in mainstream sports rehab: the use of the foam roller. When we apply the foam roller to our IT bands, it alleviates pain, and allows (most of) us to forget that the ultimate solution to the problem is actually resolving muscle imbalances.
The article neatly points out that by not resolving those imbalances,
you aren’t really doing anything to affect any kind of permanent change and in some cases you may be pushing the issue further.
The issue here is that the two muscles that are most directly connected to IT band function, the tensor fasciae latae and the gluteus medius, aren’t being developed properly, and aren’t being taught to interact with the rest of the hip musculature. As mentioned above, this is an excellent example of a shifting the burden system, which is characterized by how the “symptomatic,” short-term solution itself reduces the ability of the system to solve the fundamental problem:
The problem with this is that you’re now statically using a structure to achieve dynamic stabilization. That’s kind of like responding to the shocks on your car being too loose by tightening them up so much that they can’t move.
In systems thinking terms, this is known as a loss of resilience. By tightening up like this, the leg cannot adapt to changing conditions, such as variations in terrain, and the progression of muscle fatigue. In other words, this is a guaranteed recipe for constant, chronic injury.
The one caveat that I would add to the article’s message (although it is far from a counterargument) is that the foam roller may be a useful tool while also engaging in rehab that solves the fundamental problem. Because the foam roller does loosen up the muscles, when the hip is too tight to move well, the foam roller can be used before doing the relevant hip workouts, in order to make them more effective. As with other shifting the burden systems such as anaphylaxis, (which I discuss halfway through this article) sometimes you need the symptomatic solution to keep the system afloat, but only while diligently implementing the fundamental solution to solve the underlying problem.