A fitness trend that’s been around for some years now is MELT (Myofascial Energetic Length Technique), a form of soft tissue bodywork that involves the use of foam rollers. It’s promoted as a “hands-off” self-treatment technique that focuses on fasciae (see below for more on what fasciae are) and that can supposedly be beneficial whether you are an athlete or sedentary and whether you are healthy or have a chronic condition, such as arthritis.
Its promoters claim that MELT can eliminate chronic pain, improve sports performance, reduce sports injury risk, boost longevity, and help with all kinds of ailments, from insomnia to constipation to obesity. It’s even touted to banish the signs and symptoms of aging—in just 10 minutes a day, three times a week. Should you roll with it?
MELT was developed by Sue Hitzmann, a fitness trainer with a master’s degree in exercise science. You can learn how to do it by reading her book, The MELT Method, watching a video or on-demand streaming, or attending private or group classes. Some health clubs and community centers, for example, offer MELT classes; there are also multi-day retreats. The technique is taught by MELT instructors who are trained via online courses plus live sessions through—what else?—the “MELT University.”
The distinguishing feature of MELT is its utilization of soft foam rollers that participants lie on top of, gently rolling back and forth to relieve neck, shoulder, or back pain, for example. Soft balls of varying sizes are also used to apply gentle pressure to specific body parts, such as hands and lower arms for conditions like tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, or arthritis.
You can stand on a ball, too, and roll it against the sole of your foot for such conditions as plantar fasciitis. The MELT website sells these items (plus elastic bands), claiming that they have the right amount of softness compared with other rollers or balls on the market—but the amount of softnessversus firmness needed to create “ideal” pressure is really unknown.
Solid theory or soft speculation?
The aim of MELT is to relieve tightness of fasciae, the sheets of dense connective tissue that cover skeletal muscles. There’s much disagreement, however, between the medical profession and those involved in alternative therapy practices as to what fasciae do (and even how to define them). Proponents of MELT see fasciae as making up a fluid-based system that communicates with other body tissues and plays an active role in body processes rather than simply being supportive structures.
According to MELT, not only are aches and pains and postural issues, for example, related to a problem with fasciae, but the stresses of life impact fasciae as well, leading to dehydration of the connective tissue. This, in turn, has adverse effects on myriad body processes, including healing and the functioning of the nervous system.
In fact, proponents often promote the unsupported idea that fascial function is connected to and influences all body parts, and that a dysfunction can lead to digestive ills (such as reflux and constipation) and other conditions. Many practitioners of alternative therapies, such as chiropractic, massage therapy, and Rolfing, embrace this overarching physiological importance of fasciae.
The evidence . . . melts away
The only published study on MELT that we could find, in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies in 2017, was small (22 people) and poorly described. Participants with chronic back pain who did the self-treatments over four weeks reportedly had a decrease in connective tissue thickness and some improvements in flexibility and in pain.
But, among the many problems with the study, it’s unclear what practical significance there is of a pain score that went from 4.4 to 3.0, on average, on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (most pain)—or whether having thinner connective tissue or being able to reach four more inches toward the floor in a flexibility test translates into any real-world benefits. Results for a control group, if there was one (the paper isn’t clear), were not given, so it’s unknown if a placebo effect may have contributed to the reduced pain inparticular.
It’s also unknown how often you would need to do MELT or if any of its effects would last over time. Moreover, even the authors noted that further research is needed to validate the claim “that MELT reduces chronic pain by rehydrating connective tissue and rebalancing the regulators of the nervous system,” as MELT “theory” postulates.
Gentle but . . .
MELT is a gentle bodywork method. Enter a class and you won’t see anyone running or jumping. Rather, it’s a calm environment with people rolling around quietly at their own pace.
But if you have certain conditions, such as disc problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, or a neuroma in your foot, doing MELT on your own—by watching a video or just reading the book—might make matters worse. Having a MELT instructor is no guarantee of safety, either, since the teachers do not undergo training in bodywork or fitness that is accepted (much less sanctioned) by any recognized educational body.
Evidence is lacking for the wide range of benefits claimed for the MELT Method—and more so for the basis behind it. Still, you may indeed get some relief from tightness, and thus aches and pains, by rolling over foam rollers, though this may simply be due to muscle relaxation or some other effect (even on fasciae), not because the rolling “rebalances the nervous system” or has other unproven widespread fasciae-related effects.
If you are generally healthy and want to try the MELT Method to see if it can relieve mild aches and pains and muscle soreness, it should be fine—just don’t expect to come away looking younger, living longer, achieving greater sports performance, or cured of digestive woes. If you have a chronic or acute musculoskeletal condition, we recommend that you see your physician or a physical therapist before you “MELT.”
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Is Reiki Healing for Real?