The human body is incredibly complex. If there is just one tiny structure that isn’t doing its job, we can experience devastating consequences.
This is true of all parts of the body. For example:
- A tear of the minuscule supraspinatus muscle in the shoulder can make it difficult to use the arm.
- Damage to the 1.5-inch ACL in the knee can prevent many athletes from ever returning to high-level competition.
- Any muscles that press even slightly on the sciatic nerve in the leg can cause debilitating pain and weakness.
For the purposes of this article, we are most concerned with the third bullet point above.
Specifically, how a small muscle known as the piriformis can pinch the sciatic nerve. And how that leads to numbness, pain, and weakness throughout the entire leg.
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The purpose of this article is two-fold:
- To highlight the important features of the piriformis muscle;
- To demonstrate how to relieve tension in the piriformis muscle through stretching exercise.
Let’s take a look at each of these two areas in detail.
All About the Piriformis
To start, we’ll review some of the most basic features of the piriformis muscle. If you’re only here to see the piriformis stretches, feel free to skip down to the next section!
The Piriformis: Where Is It?
Our legs have layers of muscles that each serve distinct purposes. The piriformis muscle lies deep underneath our gluteus maximus, also known as the “butt muscle.”
The piriformis runs obliquely from an area of the lower part of the spine (the sacrum) to a portion of our upper thigh bone (the greater trochanter of the femur).
Positionally, this places the piriformis directly over top of the longest nerve in our body: the sciatic nerve.
The Piriformis: What Does it Do?
The basic functions (known to anatomists as the “actions”) of the piriformis muscle are to turn the leg outward (external rotation). This is in addition to moving the leg away from the midline of the body (abduction).
Interestingly, when the leg is bent forward (hip flexion), the piriformis muscle switches from being an external rotator to serving as an internal rotator.
You may notice this as we review some piriformis stretches in the next section of the article.
The Piriformis: Why Is It Important?
Due to its unique position atop the sciatic nerve, the piriformis is a muscle that must be kept strong and flexible. When it becomes very tight, the piriformis “pinches” or presses on the sciatic nerve.
This disrupts the nerve’s function, often leading to pain, weakness, and numbness throughout many of the muscles in the leg.
The good news is that there are several simple ways to stretch out your piriformis muscle to provide relief from sciatica pain. Try these 10 powerful piriformis stretches, and be sure to watch the videos, too.
Piriformis Stretches to Relieve Sciatica Symptoms
Each of the following stretches will serve to create more flexibility in your piriformis muscle and/or nearby muscles.
While there is some slight disagreement amongst professionals in the field as to the parameters of flexibility exercise, conventional guidance suggests that stretches should be held for a total of 2 minutes. This is to aim for a feeling of “mild discomfort”.
This means that you could hold a given stretch for 10 seconds, repeating 12 times. Or you could hold the stretch for 30 seconds, repeating 4 times.
Alternatively, you could perform a stretch for any other combination that achieves a cumulative stretch time of 2 minutes.
Within each of the stretch descriptions below, you will find different suggestions for how to break up the 2 minutes based on the difficulty or nature of the stretch.
1. Simple Seated Piriformis Stretch
- Cross your sore leg over the knee of the other leg while seated in a firm chair.
- Bend your chest forward while keeping your spine straight. Extend the stretch a little more if you don’t feel any pain.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.
- Perform this stretch on the other leg as well.
2. Standing Piriformis Stretch
This is a more advanced stretch that requires a significant level of balance. If necessary, perform this stretch with your back against a wall and your feet slightly in front of you.
- Stand with the painful leg over the knee of your other leg. You will form a “figure 4” position.
- Bend forward at the waist and reach your arms down towards the ground while keeping your spine straight.
- Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 12 times.
- Repeat the stretch on both sides.
3. Supine Piriformis Stretch
The Supine Piriformis Stretch is a great way to reduce the tension of the Piriformis muscle specifically. This is an easy exercise that requires no equipment and can be performed anywhere. Watch the video here.
- Lie down on your back and bend your knees, keeping your feet flat on the floor.
- Cross the affected leg over your unaffected leg, with your knee bent.
- Grab the knee of your affected leg with one hand and your ankle in your other hand. Pull the bent leg toward your chest until you feel “mild discomfort” in the area of the piriformis.
- Hold for 30 seconds, repeating 4 times per leg.
4. Outer Hip Stretch
This is a good stretch to perform after you have warmed up. It can be fairly intense for many people with tight hips. So be sure to spend a few minutes moving through other stretches before completing this one. Watch the video here.
- Lying on your back, bend your affected leg and, with the help of your opposite arm, pull your knee toward your opposite armpit.
- Maintain the stretch for 20 seconds and repeat 6 times.
- Complete stretch on both sides.
5. Pancake Stretch
The “pancake” is one of many flexibility exercises which can increase mobility in the inner thigh. This stretch should be incorporated into every exercise program, as it maintains the integrity of an often-neglected area of the body.
- As you sit on the floor, straighten your legs and spread them as far apart as you can.
- Position your hands on the floor in the space between your legs while angling your torso forward.
- Place your elbows (if you can stretch this far) on the ground and lean forward. If you feel pain, stop immediately.
- Hold the position for 20 seconds, repeating 6 times.
6. Adductor/Inner Thigh Stretch
The group of muscles known as the adductors runs along the inner portion of the thigh. The primary functions of these muscles are to bring the leg closer to the midline (adduction) and turn the leg inward (internal rotation).
- While sitting on the ground, bend your legs and place the soles of your feet together in front of you.
- Grasp your ankles with your hands, placing your elbows on your inner thighs or knees.
- Gently relax your legs downward (use your elbows to assist if you are able to do so) with the goal of bringing your knees into contact with the ground.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.
7. Side-Lying Clamshells
Side-Lying Clamshells are another great way to stretch the inner thigh. Furthermore, this exercise opens the hips, while strengthening the core. These muscles all contribute to your overall stability.
- Lay on the non-painful side of your body.
- Bend your legs and stack the painful one on top of your other leg. Your legs should form an “L” shape.
- While keeping your feet together, lift your top knee, keeping the rest of your body in the original position.
- Slowly return your knee back to the original position.
- Repeat 15 times for 3 sets on each side.
8. Hip Extension Exercise
Performing hip extension strengthening exercises will lead to not only stronger glute muscles, but more mobile hip flexors. This is crucial for athletes and those that sit in a flexed position for the majority of the day.
- Place your hands and knees on the ground, ensuring that your hands are underneath your shoulders.
- Keep your knee bent, and elevate one of your feet towards the ceiling.
- Slowly lower your leg until it’s almost touching the ground.
- Do this 15 times, for 3 sets.
- Repeat on the other side.
9. Supine Piriformis Stretch (Part II)
The supine piriformis stretch is a great way to isolate the deep external rotators of the hip. These muscles are important for stabilizing the hip and pelvis during weight-bearing activities.
This stretch is similar to the “outer hip stretch” (number 4 on our list), however, your opposite leg remains straight in this version. This will slightly change the angle and thus, the muscles will experience a different emphasis.
- Lie on your back with your legs flat on the ground.
- Your sore leg should be bent upward, and the foot of this leg should be placed on the outer side of the opposite leg besides your knee.
- With your opposite hand, stretch the affected leg’s knee across the center of your body so that you feel a stretch. And be sure to keep both of your shoulders flat on the ground.
- Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 4 times, then switch legs.
10. Buttocks Stretch for the Piriformis Muscle
The buttocks stretch or “pigeon” is a great stretch for the gluteal muscles and the piriformis muscle. It can help to release tight hip muscles and will generally improve hip mobility.
- Place your hands and knees on the ground.
- Bring the foot of your affected leg underneath your stomach, twisting it toward the opposite side near the hip.
- Lean your forearms on the ground and lower your forehead to touch the ground.
- While keeping your pelvis straight, slowly stretch out the non-affected leg behind you.
- Your hips should be slightly pushed toward the floor.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 4 times on each side.
The Takeaway on Piriformis Sciatica Stretches
When dealing with sciatica-related pain, you have many options. Unfortunately, the vast majority of “quick-fixes” do not address the underlying cause of your symptoms.
With stretching and mobility exercises prescribed and supervised by a trained clinician, you can decrease your symptoms permanently and return to a pain-free life.
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