Lower back pain is very common and can be the result of a variety of causes. One of these isn’t usually the primary suspect but it occurs more often than one might think: constriction of the piriformis muscle.
This small slim muscle is behind the gluteus maximus, connecting the spine to the top of the femur. If the piriformis muscle tightens, gets pulled, becomes inflamed, or spasms, an effective piriformis stretch can restore muscle function and relieve pain.
What is the Piriformis?
The piriformis is a difficult muscle to get to—the largest muscle in the body is in front of it. The piriformis allows to move the hip, upper leg, and foot outward from the body. This muscle covers the sciatic nerve (the largest in the body) that runs from the lower back down into the legs.
In some people, the sciatic nerve runs through this muscle. Sciatica is a condition in which the sciatic nerve is pinched in some way, causing pain.
The piriformis is not only important for hip and leg movement but it is a key part of our overall balance while upright. One end of the piriformis is attached to the front part of the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of the spine. It’s the only pelvic muscle that attaches to the front of the sacrum, providing balance between the pelvis and legs. Its counteraction with the psoas muscle at the front of the pelvis and the gluteus maximus at the back maintains stability. An impeded piriformis limits both mobility and balance.
What Causes Piriformis Syndrome?
Surprisingly, piriformis syndrome is a somewhat controversial condition in medical circles. It seems that medical professionals can’t determine a cause, so they have trouble defining and diagnosing it. The piriformis is difficult to see, even with modern imaging techniques.
The term for a collection of sciatica conditions coined in 1947, “piriformis syndrome” wasn’t identified as a specific problem. Since then, lower back pain caused by an impinged piriformis muscle has been determined a true condition in itself and accounts for 6-8 percent of experiences of lower back pain. (1)
Numbness, tingling, and/or severe pain can occur if the piriformis puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. This can manifest itself as a dull ache or shooting pains in the back, hip, buttocks, and legs. (2) Also, a misaligned or inflamed piriformis can cause difficulty and pain while sitting and when changing positions (e.g., from sitting to standing).
What a Healthy Piriformis Can Do For You
Because of its key function in hip and leg mobility, a fully functioning piriformis will not only reduce the potential for sciatica but will keep you mobile. In fact, walking, cycling, running, dancing, and many other activities require a healthy piriformis.
“Here is a way to feel the piriformis muscle at work. Stand with your feet together, your knees bent and your butt stuck out a little. Put your hands on your butt and draw your knees apart slightly. Your piriformis muscle should be working beneath your big gluteal muscles,” writes Core Walking (3)
Exercising and stretching the piriformis takes a conscious effort but it’s worth it. Following are some piriformis stretches you can do to give this often-overlooked muscle some attention:
How To Get a Deep Piriformis Stretch with these 12 Exercises