Piriformis Syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder that is caused when the piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve. The piriformis muscle is a flat, band-like muscle located in the buttocks near the top of the hip joint. This muscle is important in lower body movement because it stabilizes the hip joint and lifts and rotates the thigh away from the body. This enables us to walk, shift our weight from one foot to another, and maintain balance. It is also used in sports that involve lifting and rotating the thighs, in short, in almost every motion of the hips and legs.
Causes of Piriformis Syndrome
The exact causes of piriformis syndrome are unknown. Suspected causes include:
- Muscle spasm in the piriformis muscle, either because of irritation in the piriformis muscle itself, or irritation of a nearby structure such as the sacroiliac joint or hip
- Tightening of the muscle, in response to injury or spasm
- Swelling of the piriformis muscle, due to injury or spasm
- Bleeding in the area of the piriformis muscle.
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Symptoms of Piriformis Syndrome
Most commonly, patients describe acute tenderness in the buttock and sciatica-like pain down the back of the thigh, calf and foot. Typical piriformis syndrome symptoms may include:
- A dull ache in the buttock
- Pain down the back of the thigh, calf and foot (sciatica)
- Pain when walking up stairs or inclines
- Increased pain after prolonged sitting
- Reduced range of motion of the hip joint
- Symptoms of piriformis syndrome often become worse after prolonged sitting, walking or running, and may feel better after lying down on the back.
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Physiotherapy Treatment for Piriformis Syndrome
Ice Packs and Ice Massage
At the onset of pain, lie in a comfortable position on the stomach and place an ice pack on the painful area for approximately 20 minutes. Repeat as needed every 2 to 4 hours.
It may be more helpful to combine a gentle massage with the ice. Lie on the stomach and have someone gently massage the painful area with a large ice cube. If ice is applied directly to the skin (instead of a cold pack), limit it to 8 to 10 minutes to avoid an ice burn.
Some people find it helpful to alternate cold with heat. If using a heating pad, lie on the stomach and place the heating pad on the painful area for up to 20 minutes. Be sure to avoid falling asleep on a heating pad, as this may lead to skin burns.
The application of electrical stimulation to the buttock with a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit or interferential current stimulator (IFC) can help to block pain and reduce muscle spasm related to piriformis syndrome.
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There are a number of ways to stretch one’s piriformis muscle. Two simple ways include:
- Lie on the floor with the legs flat. Raise the affected leg and place that foot on the floor outside the opposite knee. Pull the knee of the bent leg directly across the midline of the body using the opposite hand or a towel, if needed, until stretch is felt. Do not force knee beyond stretch or to the floor. Hold stretch for 30 seconds, then slowly return to starting position. Aim to complete a set of three stretches.
2. Lie on the floor with the affected leg crossed over the other leg at the knees and both legs bent. Gently pull the lower knee up towards the shoulder on the same side of the body until stretch is felt. Hold stretch for 30 seconds, then slowly return to starting position. Aim to complete a set of three stretches.
Written by: Puru Chattopadhyay, Registered Physiotherapist at Physiotherapy Etobicoke