Stretching for sciatica pain can sound like a promising treatment with so many articles and videos for stretching on the internet. So why is it that you tend to feel minimal relief at best every time you try stretching for your sciatica pain? Chances are, you're not doing the one thing you must do before stretching to actually feel the difference. Learn what that one thing is and how to stretch properly within this article.
Why Stretching helps with Sciatica
Before we get into the proper way of stretching, we must first understand the benefits of stretching. And for that, we will focus on 2 different benefits, improving muscle imbalance and de-compression.
One of the first things stretching for sciatica helps with is improving your posture and muscle imbalance. Within the pain cycle's muscle imbalance stage, you have active muscles, weak muscles, and altered joints. But when a muscle is active, it also shortens. If you think about flexing your bicep, the muscle may pop up and get bigger in the middle, but that's only because the 2 ends are moving closer together. And because active muscles = short muscles, This also means weak muscles = elongated muscles.
Once again, thinking back to flexing the bicep, the triceps elongate or "stretches passively" to allow the muscle to shorten when the bicep flexes. The same thing happens when you do the opposite and perform a tricep pulldown.
This is important to understand because when you have one side that is tighter than the other, it will begin to pull on the bones it attaches too, which creates a comprised joint. Returning back to the bicep example, if the biceps were always tighter than the triceps, then the joint they attach too could end up moving out of alignment and become weaker and compromised. In this case for our example, it's the elbow and/or shoulder.
Circling back around to stretching for sciatica. By stretching out the active/shorter muscles, you can help reverse your muscle imbalance. But if you recall what I said earlier, We still need to do one thing before we can stretch and feel the benefits, which we will get into in a little bit. But first, lets go over the 2nd benefit in which stretching helps sciatica pain.
The 2nd thing stretching helps with is decompressing on the sciatic nerve. Compression is the last stage within the pain cycle and it relates directly to having a muscle imbalance. When you develop an altered joint, then that joint can begin to compress on things like nerves and blood vessels. In the case of sciatica, this is very common with people who have herniated disks around L4-L5 that compress on the sciatic nerve.
Not only that, but having tight muscles can also create sciatica pain. One instance of this is the piriformis. When this muscle becomes active and tight, it can compress on the sciatic nerve, which runs next to the muscle.
So why aren't you able to feel those kinds of results after stretching? Well, it has to do with what's happening around the muscle.
Why we feel minimal relief
2 main things are happening around the muscle that actually affects how well the muscle stretches. The first is trigger points, and the second is fascia.
Trigger Points are very hyperactive bundles of nerves within the muscle that keeps the muscle tight. Trigger points usually develop in muscles that are overused and can be very tender when pressed on. The good news is trigger points can be removed naturally with things like massage. This article isn't about trigger points; just know it's something we all have and is most likely holding your muscles in place.
The second thing within our body that keeps our muscles from stretching is fascia. Fascia is a connective tissue that weaves itself in and through everything from your muscles to bones and individual cells.
Every morning when you wake up, you have a new, thin layer of fascia throughout the body. And when you perform your morning stretch, you help loosen up the fascia, which allows the muscles to move freely. But, if you don't move or stretch in different positions frequently, then the fascia can build up over time and get stuck together, creating almost a cast-like effect on the muscle. This tends to happen more often when we have injuries and don't want to move the muscles.
Double your flexibility with this one thing
Now that you understand why stretching helps you and how stretching by itself becomes more difficult because of trigger points and fascia; It's time to figure out how to get rid of fascia and trigger points so you can stretch out the muscle properly. To release trigger points and fascia, all you need to do is perform a self-massage on the muscle you want to stretch. You can efficiently perform a self-massage using tools like a foam roller or a lacrosse ball.
This is the ONE THING you must do before stretching if you want any chance of feeling the changes. By performing a self-massage before stretching, you can help release the trigger points holding those muscles tight and get rid of the fascia wrapped around the muscles. To learn more about how to foam roll properly and get rid of all those trigger points and fascia, click here.
The proper way of stretching
Now that you know you need to self-massage the trigger points and fascia away with a foam roller (or a professional sports massage); It's time to learn how to properly stretch a tight muscle. There are 2 main rules; Hold the stretch and breath.
The first thing you need to do is make sure you're holding the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. The most common way people stretch these days is a quick pull on this muscle, that muscle, and then they're good to go. This is entirely wrong because the muscle had no time to make any changes yet. Science tells us that a muscle must be held (at least in the beginning stages) for a long enough duration for the muscle to actually make a change.
The second thing you must do make sure you're not holding the stretching to an extreme. Meaning you should be able to take deep stomach breaths while holding your stretch. If we intentionally focus on breathing with the stomach, you can activate the vagus nerve. This nerve is a huge player in reducing stress, anxiety, and even improving sleep. But we are using it to relax the body and muscles so the stretch is more effective.
What to do next
So, in summary, because the muscle has a bunch of trigger points and fascia keeping it tight, you must self-massage the muscle before stretching it. To stretch the muscle properly, you must hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, and don't forget to focus on breathing with the stomach during the stretch. Now that you know how to properly release tight muscles. It's time to learn different kinds of stretching, which is coming up in the next article.