Can a massage gun help with Sciatica? Or what role it plays alongside the other treatments of sciatica?
If you are suffering from sciatic pain then these questions must be popping up in your head.
The simple answer to these questions is; Yes massage guns do help in the recovery process. However, they cannot cure sciatica.
Read this article thoroughly to know what are the proper way to use a massage gun if you are suffering from sciatic nerve pain.
As a licensed physical therapist, I get to see a lot of patients with sciatica as it’s one of the most common problems for which people appear in PT OPD. So, I get asked questions about the effectiveness of massage in sciatica quite often.
What is Sciatica and are its Causes?
Before diving into how massage can help sciatica, one should know what sciatica is and how it should be treated according to its root cause.
Sciatica is a commonly occurring pain in the back of a leg specifically the thigh and hip which can also extend to the foot. The pain intensity ranges from mild to severe.
The sciatic nerve originates from the spine’s last vertebrae also know as L4-S3. Passing under the piriformis muscle, it goes on the backside of the thigh until the knee level.
It then divides and one part (tibial nerve) continues down till the heel. While the other part moves to the side of the leg at the knee level.
Sciatica symptoms usually occur in the sciatic and tibial nerves collectively, so this course should be considered during the treatment.
The type of pain may be numbness, tingling, sharp cutting, or stabbing pain occurring along the course of the sciatic nerve which makes simple tasks of daily life like walking, running difficult.
Sciatica is caused primarily by the following three reasons.
1. Disc herniation
This is the most common cause of sciatica because the disc puts pressure on the nerve roots of the sciatic nerve.
2. Lumbar stenosis
Stenosis is narrowing of the spinal canal and due to narrowing, the nerve roots are under pressure and produce pain along the full length of the nerve.
3. Soft tissue or Piriformis syndrome
Piriformis is a flat muscle, lying horizontally in the hip region, attached between the base of the spine and the head of the femur. It’s placed underneath the gluteus muscles and directly on top of the sciatic nerve.
When a muscle is tight or inflamed like the piriformis, that’s on top of the sciatic nerve in the hip region, the nerve gets compressed and radiates pain along the way.
This kind of muscle tightness is most common in runners, sportsmen, and long-sitting individuals.
The nerve entrapment can also occur at any point during its course due to inflammation, tightness of a muscle, or scarring of any structure, causing similar symptoms.
Treatment of Sciatica
Treatment is based on two categories: short-term and long-term.
- Short term treatment includes symptomatic relief i.e., relief from pain, inflammation, or any other symptom.
- Long term treatment includes curing the disease or treating the underlying root cause of the disease.
The first step is always medication, then physical therapy and massage. So, it is clear that massage is not a complete treatment of Sciatica rather a part of it.
But that doesn’t mean the effects of massage therapy can be ignored.
A study conducted by Jonathan Boote et al – to test whether the effect of physiotherapy including manual therapy can save sciatica patients from going into surgery.
As a result, most patients felt therapy valuable than surgery.
Massage and its Benefits on Sciatica
Lots of people asking us “can massage make sciatica worse?” Definitely not.
A large part of medication is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or pain killers which if taken for a long time, can cause serious issues for your stomach.
The pain killer effect is also temporary and not a cure. Alternatively, this pain relief can best be achieved by massage.
According to a study by Jada bell – Massage therapy helps to increase range of motion, decrease pain and assist in healing a client with low back pain and sciatica symptoms.
A massage also provides you with additional benefits like the following.
- Sense of well being
- Improved circulation
- Reduced stress (by the release of endorphins)
- Muscle relaxation
- Pain relief
Who can use a Massage Gun for Sciatica?
Sciatica is of different types based on its causes and almost everyone can use a massage gun unless there is any other contraindication like DVT or pregnancy. But the effect of massage varies for these types.
If you have a herniated disc or lumbar stenosis, then you can use the massager but be careful and avoid the spine. In these conditions, a massage gun will provide you with pain relief and muscle relaxation, but the effect is temporary as the underlying pathology is still there.
For those with soft tissue, myofascial problems, or piriformis syndrome, this may be the best choice as its working directly for the root cause.
How does Massage gun work on Sciatica?
When a Massage Gun is used for sciatica, it tends to improve the general sense of wellbeing, improving your willpower to fight the disease.
The vibrations and strokes of a percussion massager improve blood circulation in the targeted areas making healing faster and reducing inflammation.
When it’s used with proper technique, on the tense muscles and trigger points, it relaxes the muscles and releases all the trigger points ultimately relieving pressure from the nerve.
The vibrations are usually set at a particular frequency that overrides the pain signal in the brain, hence diminishing and relieving pain.
One Case Study by Melinda Lugo found the amazing Effects of Massage Therapy on Reducing Pain, Improving Sleep Quality, and Increasing Breathing Function on a Sciatica Patient.
With all these benefits, there is the release of endorphins in the muscles due to percussive pressure and vibrations as a cherry on top.
How to use Massage gun properly for sciatica?
You cannot just pick up the massage gun and apply it blindly rather you should first work out the area of pain and the specific muscles and trigger points.
It’s best if someone else does the massage on you because massage is always best when the body receives it passively, also the muscles are way more relaxed.
- First, use ball head attachment and lie down in a prone position. Now massage the low back on the affected side with slow strokes and normal pressure for 1-2 minutes. During this time keep the head moving and do not keep still on any muscle.
- When the low back is done, move to the buttock part. Here, you need to massage the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus muscles thoroughly.
- Keeping the bullet head, now move to the back of the leg and massage the hamstrings and calf muscle as well. 30 seconds on each muscle and do three repetitions.
- Now attach the bullet head and remove the rounded ball head and work on the trigger points of the gluteus medius, minimus, hamstrings, and calf muscles with a set of 30sec and 3 repetitions on each trigger point.
Below, the trigger points visual is given for the hip, hamstrings, and calf muscles.
- There is another head attachment that is U-shaped and is specific for the spine. Attach this on the massage gun and keep each arm of U on the sides of the spine, starting from the lumbar (low back) move up to the cervical spine (neck), keeping the pressure gentle. Do three repetitions.
For self-massage, the alternate position for the low back is in sitting instead of lying down. For hip, its side lying n for leg muscles, lie supine with knees bent.
Can massage make sciatica worse?
Keep in mind one thing that gun should not be placed directly on the piriformis muscle, rather use around it, as it can put further pressure on the sciatic nerve making sciatica worse.
So, Can massage gun help with sciatica?
Well yes, it can to some extent but it does not cure Sciatica.
Sciatica is a nerve pain in which massage plays an important role during recovery.
So, if you plan on using a Percussion Massager to treat Sciatica – it is important that you always consult your doctor prior to massage therapy and follow the complete treatment plan because massage is just a part of it.
Passive massage is best but you can also do it by yourself by following the proper guidelines given above.
Dr. Sara is a certified physical therapist who has used a wide variety of massagers and massage guns on many patients. Since she loves helping people, she started writing to spread her knowledge and help others.