Every summer millions of us take advantage of fairer weather and longer days to get outside more. Morning runs, weekend bike rides, and long evening strolls become more common.
If you’re one of the many who frequently get a deep pain in your buttocks, hip or down your leg after you take up summer activities like these there’s a good chance it’s coming from a little known muscle called the piriformis.
It’s the piriformis muscle deep in the posterior side of our hips, along with a few other lateral rotator muscles, which allow our bodies to keep from falling over when we walk by shifting our body weight side to side as we lift our feet.
However, many of the activities we participate in require this muscle to continually contract. As the muscle is overworked, it becomes painfully tight while stretching nearby muscles. Piriformis syndrome is a frequent contributor to lower back pain and one of the four primary causes of sciatica.
What activities lead to piriformis syndrome?
Perhaps the most common activity leading to piriformis syndrome wouldn’t really be called an “activity” at all by most of us: sitting. But just holding your body erect in a seat with your hips flexed (knees bent, feet on the floor) requires your piriformis muscle to contract to help maintain that position. And sitting on a wallet can quickly make matters even worse.
Yes, many of us sit all day long throughout the year. So why the big deal about summer activities causing piriformis syndrome?
Many of our summer activities like running, bicycling, hiking, and rowing all work the piriformis muscle as we repeatedly bend our legs. In fact, they repeatedly work the same muscles over and over.
Unless we take care to properly stretch and strengthen other muscles by lateral (sideways) movements of our legs we soon create a muscle imbalance where the piriformis muscle becomes short and tight. This is what leads to both deep muscle aches and referred nerve pain from strangulation of the sciatic nerve where it passes near or through the piriformis muscle.
Even if your pain isn’t constant yet, if you’re experiencing pain in your lower back, buttocks, or down the back of your legs it’s worth considering piriformis syndrome as a possible cause. Here’s a couple quick ways to determine if your piriformis muscle is overly tight: take a quick look down at your feet right now. If they’re turned with your toes pointed outwards, your piriformis is tight. Another way is to lie down and relax your legs. Now look at your feet. Chances are the toes are turned outwards. Again, that’s a sign your piriformis is overly tight and may be leading to pain.
How to end piriformis syndrome pain
The good news is piriformis syndrome, painful as it may be, can usually be quickly reversed. Naturally you’ll want to start by giving your piriformis muscle a much needed break. This means take it easy with the running, jumping, hiking, climbing, bicycling, and rowing. Take frequent breaks when sitting so the piriformis doesn’t remain in a contracted state for prolonged periods.
Then begin targeted stretching exercises to relieve the tension in the piriformis muscle. You’ll find three easy stretches you can do without leaving your chair in the video on this page. Many people get pain relief the first time they try these stretches and most overcome their piriformis syndrome symptoms within a couple weeks through targeted stretching.
Papadopoulos EC, Khan SN. Piriformis syndrome and low back pain: a new classification and review of the literature. The Orthopedic clinics of North America. 2004 Jan;35(1):65-71. PokornÃ½ D, et al. Topographic variations of the relationship of the sciatic nerve and the piriformis muscle and its relevance to palsy after total hip arthroplasty. Surgical and radiologic anatomy: SRA. 2006 Mar;28(1):88-91.