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Massage guns can help relieve sciatic pain, if you use them right.
Sciatica is one of the most common nerve pain conditions, affecting up to an estimated 40% of people at some point in their lives. If you find yourself writhing due to nerve pain, there’s a way to find some sciatica pain relief: a massage gun.
Utilizing what’s called percussive therapy, massage guns mimic a technique called myofascial release, which is a type of soft-tissue therapy used in certain types of manual massages. Handheld massagers give you the power to reap the pain-relieving benefits of myofascial release more frequently, and in a more practical, budget-friendly way.
Here, we’ll break down what sciatica is, what causes it, and how to use a massage gun for sciatica.
Medical disclaimer: This article is for information and educational purposes only, and it is not intended as medical advice. For medical advice of any sort, see a qualified healthcare provider.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is pain that originates from the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body.
“The sciatic nerve is a thick bundle of smaller nerve roots that branch off each side of your spinal cord. [It] contains all the nerve fibers that control muscles and provide feeling to your thighs, groins, lower legs, and feet,” explains Dr. Grant Radermacher, a chiropractor at Ascent Chiropractic, who has extensive training in physical therapy.
“If anything compresses these nerve roots it can severely affect their ability to perform these jobs, leading to what we call sciatica,” he continues.
The most common symptom of sciatica is a shooting pain that can range from mild to severe.
According to Steve Hruby, doctor of chiropractic and founder at Kaizen Progressive Wellness, a chiropractic care facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, sciatica nerve pain is typically felt in the low back and buttocks and may radiate down the leg.
However, Hruby explains that sciatica pain can present anywhere along the length of the nerve, which extends from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down your legs.
“The pain is often described as sharp, shooting, or searing. It can also be accompanied by numbness, tingling, or weakness in the leg,” he says.
So, how does the nerve get compressed in the first place? Dr. Radermacher points to three structural causes:
- Disc herniations (when one of the impact-absorbing cushions between your vertebrae bulges in a way it shouldn’t)
- Degeneration (loss of normal structure due to wear-and-tear on the spine)
- Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the openings in your spine where nerve roots exit
But sciatica can also develop as a result of tight, compressed muscles, specifically as the sciatic nerve passes underneath the piriformis, a muscle located deep in the buttocks. When this happens, it can cause a condition called piriformis syndrome, which results in sciatica-like symptoms, namely muscle pain and numbness.
How Do Massage Guns Work?
Massage guns rely on a recovery technique called myofascial release. This is actually the same technique used in many different types of massage with a massage therapist, but a massage gun gives you the ability to perform self-massage, whenever and wherever you need it.
Depending on the type, massage guns also allow you to dig a little deeper into the muscle so you can relieve knots and adhesions that may be contributing to sore muscles and pain.
Massage guns utilize two types of therapies: percussive massage or vibration therapy, which are both forms of soft tissue manipulation. Percussive massage guns send out short bursts of pressure in an up and down motion, similar to the action of a jackhammer, while vibration massage guns use a side-to-side motion.
Both can be helpful for sciatica, but ultimately, it depends on the underlying cause.
“While a massage gun isn’t going to be much help for sciatica that’s caused by a disc herniation, spinal degeneration or stenosis (those are structural issues, not soft tissue problems), they excel at helping release tight, spasmed piriformis muscles,” says Dr. Radermacher.
Massage Therapy and Sciatic Nerve Pain
The main way massage therapy helps with sciatic nerve and back pain is by loosening tight muscles and helping break up tissue adhesions and trigger points. It also promotes blood circulation, which boosts the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to sore, painful areas. This can alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and promote recovery.
Studies also show that massage therapy can help reduce your pain threshold and your perception of pain, which could make sciatica more manageable.
It also releases endorphins and boosts serotonin and dopamine levels while lowering cortisol, the primary stress hormone. This cascade of positive biochemical changes can promote relaxation (which can indirectly alleviate tense muscles) and contribute to pain management.
Percussive Therapy and Sciatica
There haven’t been enough studies done on percussive therapy to make conclusive statements on massage guns and sciatica, but there is some anecdotal evidence from users who swear by them and experts agree that a massage gun can help, depending on the root cause of sciatica.
Massage guns mimic the action of manual massage, but can get a little deeper into the muscle, depending on the type of massage gun you use.
“The massage gun creates a deep tissue massage that can help to relieve the pressure on the sciatic nerve. It can also help to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation,” says Hruby.
Percussive therapy, which refers to massage guns that utilize the up-and-down motion, is particularly beneficial at loosening muscle tension and improving range of motion, while vibration massage guns shine at warming up the soft tissue and boosting blood circulation.
Related: Do Massage Guns Really Work?
Using a Massage Gun for Sciatica
When it comes to using a massage gun for sciatica, Dr. Radermacher says it’s best if you have someone else to help you because twisting to get into position to target the piriformis yourself can be counterproductive and leave you in even more pain.
He recommends lying face down and getting as relaxed as possible, then “having whoever’s assisting you hold the handle of the massage gun in their dominant hand and place the head of the gun into the web between their thumb and forefinger on their other hand to help guide it around bony prominences and joints.”
From there, using the massager’s lowest setting, “Simply pass the head of the gun slowly from just below the sacroiliac joint, over the buttock and out towards the hip,” he says. And remember, you don’t need to use a ton of force, just gentle pressure.
Related: 6 Workout Recovery Myths Busted
Hruby adds that sciatica can cause tight muscles down the entire length of the leg, particularly the hamstrings and calf muscles. “Using the massage gun on those can help improve mobility of the nerve and decrease symptoms,” he says.
He recommends starting with specific muscle groups, like the hamstrings and calf, to improve mobility without aggravating the nerve and then moving to the lower back muscles and glutes with very low settings for a lesser period of time.
If you’re feeling more targeted pain, like leg pain or lower back pain, you can also focus on those areas first, moving in a circular motion as you glide across the muscles.
Just two to three minutes per area should do the trick. If you’re particularly sore, you may have to start with 30 seconds per area and then work your way up.
Massage Gun for Sciatica FAQs
Are massage guns good for sciatica?
Massage guns can help relieve sciatica that’s caused by tight, compressed muscles. While they can’t correct structural problems, like a herniated disc, they can provide temporary pain relief when used thoughtfully.
What’s the best massage gun for sciatica?
All massage guns can help with sciatica, but we think the Theragun Prime is the best massage gun overall. If that’s out of your price range, the Ekrin Athletics BANTAM is our favorite budget massage gun.
Is it safe to use a massage gun for sciatica?
Yes, it’s generally considered safe to use a massage gun for sciatica; just make sure you’re targeting the muscle tissue and not overdoing it. If you’re really sore, going too hard or too fast can aggravate the nerve and make your pain worse. Start with 30 seconds per session, and work your way up to two to three minutes as tolerated.
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