Foam Roller Exercises for the Sciatic Nerve

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The foam roller is a great way to relieve the sciatic nerve.
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Using a foam roller for sciatica can be effective for increasing flexibility and decreasing pain in your hip and leg. If your sciatic pain is due to piriformis syndrome, the following foam roller exercises and stretches may reduce nerve compression and improve your symptoms.

What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a common condition affecting up to 40 percent of people, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Its name comes from the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower lumbar spine, passes through the buttock muscles and goes down the back of your legs through the soles of your feet and into toes. This is actually the largest and longest nerve in your body.

People who are experiencing sciatica will often feel pain, as well as tingling and numbness along that same path that the nerve travels, down their legs and into their feet.

There are several reasons for sciatica pain. Depending on the cause, a foam roller may or may not help. One of the most common causes of sciatica is a herniated disk in your lumbar spine, which can compress the sciatic nerve.

Osteoarthritis can also narrow the openings in your vertebrae and injure the sciatic nerve. If your sciatic pain is due to these injuries, a foam roller won't help.

Sciatic pain can also be caused by piriformis syndrome, in which the piriformis muscle in your buttocks compresses the nerve. The piriformis muscle stabilizes the hip and plays a key role in balance and walking. If piriformis syndrome is the reason for your pain, a foam roller can be very effective.

If you are having sciatica, see your doctor so they can do tests to determine the exact cause of your pain. In general, those whose sciatica caused by piriformis syndrome report a sore spot in the buttock and pain down the back of the thigh into the calf and foot, notes Cedars Sinai.

Tip

Prolonged sitting as well as walking up stairs or inclines may increase the pain, while lying down on your back may relieve it.

Dancers, runners, soccer players and track-and-field athletes are susceptible to developing piriformis syndrome because of repetitive hip motions. Those who sit for long periods are also at risk, as sitting puts direct pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Foam Rolling Basics

If you have piriformis syndrome, a foam roller for sciatica can be very effective. According to Harvard Health Publishing, this device may help improve flexibility and range of motion while relieving muscle tension and soreness. It is recommended to use it before stretching, as you get a window of increased flexibility after foam rolling.

An April 2019 meta-analysis in Frontiers in Physiology has assessed the effects of foam rolling and found that it provided short-term improvement in flexibility without affecting muscle performance.

It's interesting to note that while athletes reported less muscle soreness with foam rolling after exercise, the scientific evidence didn't necessarily support that. The study recognizes the physiological aspects of performing foam rolling for muscle soreness, even if the physiological benefits don't support it at this time.

Foam rolling can be a little bit uncomfortable at first, but hang in there! You will feel some tenderness over the tightened muscle initially, but it will subside after 30 to 90 seconds. Look for softer foam rollers when you first start. Later, you can progress to those that are firmer.

Talk to your doctor before you start using a foam roller. As Harvard Health Publishing notes, those with advanced osteoporosis, deep-vein thrombosis, neuropathy or a flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis should not use this method.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know to Start Foam Rolling Your Tight Muscles

Foam Roller for Sciatica

Because the piriformis muscle is compressing the sciatic nerve, performing the following exercises and stretches may help reduce the nerve compression, states the American Osteopathic Association. In addition to exercises, your doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants or corticosteroid injections.

The following self-myofascial release (SMR) techniques may help relieve pain and improve flexibility, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Perform them at least once a day to reap the benefits.

Move 1: SMR Piriformis

  1. Sit on top of your foam roller, placing it directly on the back of the hip/buttock area.
  2. Cross one leg over the other and place your foot on the opposite knee.
  3. Slowly roll the foam over the back of the hip and buttocks.
  4. Apply prolonged pressure on tender spots for around 30 seconds.

Move 2: SMR Quads

  1. Lie on your stomach and place the foam roller under the front of your thigh.
  2. Support your body with your forearms.
  3. Slowly roll the foam roller down the front of your thigh.
  4. Apply pressure on tender spots for around 30 seconds.

Move 3: SMR IT Band

The outer thigh or IT band can have many trigger points. Take your time and ease into the trigger points and sensitive areas.

  1. Lie on your side with the foam roller placed under the side of your hip. Prop yourself up with one of your arms.
  2. Cross your top leg over the leg on the foam roller, with your foot on the floor.
  3. Slowly roll from the hip down to the knee, rolling along the outer thigh. Keep the roll slightly in front of the hip and knee.
  4. Use your propped-up arm to control the pressure, easing in as tolerated.
  5. Apply pressure on tender spots for around 30 seconds.

Read more: Sciatica Exercises to Avoid

Post Foam Roller Stretches

After performing the above foam roller stretches, take advantage of your improved flexibility to do the following hip and buttock stretches for piriformis syndrome relief, says the NASM. Improving hip flexibility and range of motion will help reduce the pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Move 1: Piriformis Static Stretch

  1. Lie on your back with one foot on top of a stability ball and the other foot crossed over your knee.
  2. Pull the ball toward your body with your heel.
  3. Press the crossed knee away from you until you feel a stretch in your buttock.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds.

Tip

You can also do this stretch with your foot on the floor if you don’t have a ball.

Move 2: Biceps Femoris Stretch

  1. Lie on your back with one leg straight, holding the other leg behind your bent knee.
  2. Extend or straighten your leg up until you feel a stretch in the back of your leg.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat on each side.

Move 3: Hip Flexor Stretch

  1. Kneel on your back leg, with your front leg bent at 90 degrees in front of you.
  2. Shift your body forward and raise your arm on the same side of the knee that is on the floor.
  3. You should feel a stretch at the front of the thigh on the floor.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

You should also incorporate hip-strengthening exercises into your routine, such as bridges, wall squats and lateral tube walking. As your pain subsides, continue to perform these stretches and exercises two to three times a week to keep your symptoms from returning.

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