The iliotibial band (IT band or ITB) is a thick band of connective tissue that runs longitudinally along the outside of your leg. It begins at the hip and continues to the knee and shinbone. The IT band provides stability and movement in the knee and strengthens and protects the lateral thigh.
It also helps with hip rotation, extension, and sideways movements. The IT band becomes tight due to overuse, repetitive movements, and muscle weakness. You may experience this tightness in your hip, thigh, and knee.
There’s some debate about the best way to alleviate tightness in the IT band and whether you should use a foam roller to do this. Read on to take a look at the pros and cons of using a foam roller to ease IT band tightness, as well as some different treatment options.
While it’s often recommended that you use a foam roller to loosen up your IT band, it may not be the best option. Instead, you can focus on alleviating tightness in your hip and leg muscles. This includes the tensor fasciae latae muscle, which is found on the outside of the hip.
If you have a lot of tightness in or around your IT band, foam rolling may be extremely painful and can even cause more discomfort. This is especially likely if you do it incorrectly. Plus, it may not be that effective.
An older study from 2010 found that IT band stretches created almost no difference in the length of the IT band. This research recommends that other treatment options are considered when treating IT band tightness.
Research from 2019 found that foam rolling isn’t particularly effective in improving performance and recovery. In certain cases, it was more useful. For example, foam rolling before a workout showed short-term improvements in flexibility without affecting muscle performance.
Overall, the research suggests that foam rolling can be useful pre-workout instead of as a recovery option.
A foam roller may be an OK option if you have mild tightness in your IT band area. Before you foam roll your IT band, roll out your glutes, hips, and quadriceps. Then do your hamstrings and calves.
Here are a few tips for using a foam roller correctly:
- Use gentle pressure.
- Choose a soft-surface foam roller.
- Use your other body parts to support your body weight.
- Go slowly.
- Roll over a small area at one time.
- Use a mat for cushioning.
- Avoid any areas that don’t roll smoothly.
When you experience pain, soreness, or tightness in your IT band, you must rest as much as possible and take a break from any activities that are contributing to the discomfort. Give your body a chance to fully heal.
Here are a few ways to treat a tight IT band:
You can’t stretch or elongate the actual IT band due to its thick, tough nature. However, you can loosen up the nearby muscles, which include the hips and legs. Do exercises to stretch and strengthen the hip and leg muscles. Always warm up and cool down when you exercise.
Here are a few stretches and exercises to get started. Do these at least three times per week.
- Lie on your side with your affected leg on top.
- Stack bent knees and use your lower arm to support your head.
- Keep your feet together and engage your core muscles as you lift your top knee.
- Slowly lower your knee to the starting position.
- Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
- Do the opposite side.
Cross-ankle standing forward bend
- Stand with your right ankle crossed in front of your left, bending your knees slightly.
- Hinge your hips to fold forward, placing your hands on the floor or a block.
- Press your right leg back and your left leg forward.
- Hold for 20 seconds to 1 minute.
- Then do the opposite side.
- Repeat 2 to 3 times.
- Lie on your back with your left foot flat on the floor near your hip.
- Bend your right knee and place your ankle against your lower left thigh.
- Interlace your fingers behind your left thigh and draw your thigh toward your chest.
- Hold this position for 20 seconds to 1 minute.
- Then do the opposite side.
- Repeat 1 to 3 times.
There are several ways to prevent IT band tightness. Make sure you’re not working out too hard or pushing yourself beyond your limits, especially if a healed injury starts to creep back in.
Rest between workouts to give your muscles time to recover. Balance out high-impact activities with low-impact exercises such as yoga, swimming, or tai chi. Do some type of stretching each day, and always warm up and cool down when you exercise.
Follow a healthy diet and stay hydrated, especially on active days.
The IT band can become tight due to repetitive movements, tight muscles, and weak hip stabilizers. Inflammation and irritation are also common, especially among people who work out regularly.
Tight IT bands are prevalent among cyclists, runners, and weight lifters. They’re also common among basketball and soccer players. A tight IT band also occurs from activities such as walking up and down stairs or hills.
Other causes of a tight IT band include:
- tight or weak hip, gluteal, or abdominal muscles
- muscle weakness, imbalance, or inflexibility
- extended periods of sitting, especially with bent knees
- knee arthritis
- unequal leg lengths
- bow legs
- using poor form or technique when exercising
- wearing inappropriate shoes
- working out without warming up and cooling down
Talk to a physical therapist if you have sudden, severe, or long-lasting pain or tightness in your IT band, or if you’ve tried to relieve IT band tightness on your own but haven’t seen any improvements.
A physical therapist can help you determine the cause of your discomfort, which may include anatomical imbalances.
They can show you the appropriate exercises to relieve tightness, build strength, and gain flexibility, especially if tightness in your IT band is related to how you’re using your other muscles. They’ll also teach you to do the exercises properly using correct form and technique.
A physical therapist can also help you track your progress and make adjustments to your training plan as necessary. If you decide to use a foam roller, do it under the guidance of a physical therapist. They can teach you how to do exercises correctly and use the proper amount of pressure.
If you have a tight IT band, it’s important to look at the underlying causes so you can treat it appropriately. Do stretches and exercises to build and maintain muscle strength and flexibility to support your daily and athletic movements.
This is especially important if you use repetitive movements and have any existing pain or tightness. Avoid pushing yourself too hard, take a break when needed, and contact a physical therapist if you want more guidance.