How to focus on stretching the piriformis muscle

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In this post, I will discuss stretching, the piriformis muscle specifically.  I will tell you about my own personal experience and how I handled stretching this area.  These particular areas on the right side of my body were in dire need of stretching, piriformis muscle, hamstrings, hip flexors as a result of my injury in 2015.  Honestly, the right side of my body has always been the problem area for me, dating all the way back to 1999 when my back problems started.

Stretching Pirformis Muscle

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The older I get, the more I understand how important stretching is.  Especially when recovering from an injury.  One reason that muscles will tighten, is to protect injured parts of the body.  They will tighten to prevent further injury.

This is my experience, something that really helped me.  I am not a doctor or healthcare provider, but rather someone who has worked through a lot of pain associated with issues affecting the lower back.  I am not recommending that anyone do these exercise or stretching routines without first consulting a doctor or other healthcare provider.

This is based on my own personal experience.  These exercises have worked for me.  I have tried things that have worked and some that have not worked, you may find the same.  My hope is you can find some relief for some common problems related to low back pain.

Where is the piriformis muscle located?

Diagram of piriformis muscle
Piriformis Syndrome by Patrick J. Lynch & KDS4444/CC BY-SA 2.5

The piriformis muscle is located deep in the buttock, behind the gluteus maximus (the biggest of the butt muscles).  It is really frustrating that such a small muscle can cause so much discomfort.  When you think about it though, and see it in action, it really makes sense as to how and why it all works.

Let’s talk about what the piriformis muscle is and what it does.

The piriformis muscle attaches to the lower spine and the top of the femur and helps our legs rotate outward.

What is piriformis syndrome?

This is a condition I suffered through as a result of my injury in December 2015. The piriformis muscle can tighten, swell or spasm, and wreak havoc on the sciatic nerve.  In my case, I sprained my sacroiliac joint (commonly referred to as SI joint).  This lead to me having piriformis syndrome.  I had to ice my SI joint for weeks to get the swelling to go down so that I could get to a place where I could start to eventually do some of these stretches.

The sciatic nerve runs along and underneath the piriformis muscle.  So, when the piriformis swells or tightens, which can happen from overuse or injury, this can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing pain or discomfort.  The pain typically runs through the butt, down the back of the legs, through the calf and into the foot.  It can be a tingle, or it can be a sharp pain, as it was in my case.  The pain I experienced ran all the way to my toes, it was pretty bad.

How to stretch the piriformis muscle

There are several different ways to stretch the piriformis muscle.  I will walk through the most common ways and give you some variations.  The first example is to lay on your back with both knees bent, feet on the floor.  Pull your right leg to your chest, keeping the left leg bent and foot flat on the floor.  You will then want to gently pull your right leg toward your left shoulder with your left hand.  So, you want to pull toward the opposite side.

You should feel this in your upper, outer butt area on the right side.  Repeat these steps on the left side as well.  You can start with as little as 5-10 seconds, and work your way up to 30 seconds from there.  The most important thing is to listen to your body.  If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

For a deeper stretch, you can assume the same position as before.  Lay on your back, legs bent, and feet flat on the floor.  This time you will want to rest your right ankle on your left knee, then gently pull your left leg toward your chest.  Again, perform this stretch on both the right and left side of your body, start slow and work your way up.

You can also do this sitting in a chair at work or at home.  This is how I had to start, initially, since I wasn’t able to do this laying on my back for quite some time.  I still do this a few times throughout the day, as sitting in my chair at work really contributes to tightening of the muscles in this area.Me demonstrating stretching piriformis muscle

As you are sitting raise one leg, right leg for starters, and rest your right ankle on your left knee.  Gently pull your right leg toward your chest.  Again, hold this for a few seconds to get the hang of it and see how it feels.  Release and try again, or try the other side.

You can also do this stretch sitting on the floor of your living room, while you watch TV.  There are variations of how to do this as well.  Sit upright on the ground, bend your left leg, keeping the right leg straight.  Gently pull the left leg over the top of the straight right leg.

Put your left foot flat on the ground on the other side of the extended right leg.  So, now your left leg with knee bent, is over the top of the fully extended right leg.  You can then gently pull, or hug, the left leg toward your chest.

Another variation is to lie flat on your back with a pillow or two supporting your shoulders and neck.  Similar to the stretch just mentioned, bend one leg and gently pull that leg over the top of the leg that is fully extended.  Then you can apply gentle pressure, pulling the bent leg down toward the floor on the opposite side.

If you are feeling really adventurous, you can try pigeon pose.  This is a more advanced stretch and may not be suitable for everyone.  I am still working on getting the hang of this 🙂

I really hope that one of these variations of stretching will help you as they have me.  I am really going to work on the pigeon pose because it really works, and it gives me a goal to shoot for.  With any of these exercises, do what feels good.  If you feel any pain, stop!

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