A small controlled trial, first rigorous test of the question, shows that self-massage with a foam roller can substantially reduce soreness in the quadriceps after exercise.
Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto J-E et al. Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training. 2015. Online first. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
The first systematic, peer-reviewed study has assessed and endorsed a strategy that physical therapists and fitness trainers often recommend for quadriceps muscle pain: Self-massage using a foam roller. Although focused on athletic performance, this report may be of interest to knee osteoarthritis patients counseled to strengthen their quadriceps muscles in order to regain and maintain mobility.
Individuals using the roller place their body weight on a sore spot and roll back and forth, stretching and exerting pressure on the muscle.
It has been unclear whether post-exercise massage of any kind is beneficial for muscular function, say the authors of this report. Literature on the subject of foam rolling as a form of self-massage is "rudimentary," they add: only one previously reported study, not peer-reviewed.
Their study involved 8 healthy Canadian men in their early 20s, who were trained to use the roller on their quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, iliotibial band, and gluteal muscles. Acting as their own controls, in an order assigned at random, they were asked to use the foam roller, or not, after performing 10 sets of 10 repetitions of barbell squats in two separate study sessions 4 weeks apart.
Participants used the foam roller for 20 minutes immediately after the exercise and 24, 48, and 72 hours later.
Afterwards the researchers analyzed quadriceps pain by measuring sensitivity to pressure on the muscle. They also assessed subjects for post-test performance in other exercises including sprinting, broad jump, and further squats.
The researchers found large decreases in quadriceps pain 24 and 48 hours after foam rolling. The foam-rolling session 72 hours post-exercise had little effect on pain.
Foam rolling also showed significant effects on sprint speed and power performance at 24 and 48 hours.
The massage-like action of foam rolling could relieve pain by increasing blood flow to the muscle, the authors speculate. They cite other evidence that massage induces biochemical effects in muscle, such as increases in circulating neutrophils and changes in cytokines.
Whatever the mechanism, they say, foam rolling offers a "recovery modality that is relatively affordable, easy to perform, and time efficient."
The article, available in free full text, includes pictures and detailed descriptions of foam-rolling technique.