Pinched nerves are literally a pain in the butt -- or the neck, as well as other junctions along the spine. In addition to pain, likely symptoms include weakness, tingling, numbness or shooting pains in a leg or arm.
Can yoga help? The answer is a resounding "yes." In fact, in February of 2017 the American College of Physicians (ACP) included yoga in its new guidelines as an effective non-invasive therapy to resolve acute lower back pain from pinched nerves and other causes. Although other kinds of pinched nerve pain weren't specifically mentioned, the guidelines are an affirmation of what yoga practitioners have known for ages: Yoga may accomplish what narcotics and neurosurgery can't.
What's a Pinched Nerve, Anyway?
Pinched nerves -- known clinically as radiculopathies -- occur when nerve roots that branch off from the spinal cord are impinged upon by a bone spur, tight muscles or a piece of one of the soft discs that cushion the spine both at the neck and the lower back. When this happens, the nerve becomes irritated and inflamed. Pinched nerves are most likely to occur in the lower back but can also affect the neck or other areas of the spinal cord.
First, Do No Harm
While the ACP guidelines acknowledge yoga as a viable treatment, they don't offer much in the way of specifics. When it comes to healing your pinched nerve with yoga, it's wise to follow the Hippocratic Oath: "First do no harm." Common sense and your body's response to certain poses will tell you a lot about whether you're on the right track, and it's important to tell your yoga instructor about your pinched nerve.
Poses for Pinched Nerves
Keep in mind that being over-ambitious in yoga can do more harm than good. Many of the exercises prescribed by physical therapists are derived from yoga, and it's worth consulting with your doctor and/or your physical therapist what you should and shouldn't do. They will have knowledge of anatomy that a yoga instructor may not possess. As always, proper form is essential.
Cobra decompresses the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae and relieves spinal pressure by extending the abdomen and front of the chest. Cobra is performed by lying face-down; keep your hands under your shoulders and elbows to your sides, push up through the floor from your waist.
Extended Side Angle Pose
Extended Side Angle Pose makes room for the nerves branching off from the spinal cord by lengthening the spine. It involves assuming a modified lunge position from which you rotate your torso upward with arm extended.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is occurs when nerves or blood vessels involved in the thoracic outlet -- the oval passage between the armpit and base of the neck -- are compressed by tight muscles, bone misalignment or scar tissue. Fish pose, an upper back stretch performed lying on your back with your upper torso arched upward, can help break down scar tissue and soften knotted muscle to make more room for the nerves and vessels. It elongates the scalenes, which are the muscles that connect the neck to the top ribs.
For sciatica caused by a bulging disc, the ever-faithful Downward Dog can open vertebrae to help the disc fall back into place. Another cause of sciatica can be piriformis syndrome, which is spasm of the muscle that stretches from the outer sacrum to the top of the thigh bone at the hip joint, passing (and sometimes clamping) over the sciatic nerve on its way down. For this, Fish pose but without the rotating torso is good, as is Revolved Triangle pose.
- University of Rochester Medical Center: Pinched Nerve
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians
- NBC News: Bad karma: When yoga harms rather than heals
- Yoga for Sciatica: The Best Poses to Ease the Pain
- Yoga Journal: Better Your Back