4 Nerve Flossing Exercises for Sciatica

Traditional medical methods of pain reduction often prove ineffective for many people with sciatica, but nerve flossing might help. Find out what it is and how it works.

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“Have you tried flossing?” That’s not something you’d expect to hear from a medical professional you’re seeing for your sciatica, that electric pain shooting down your leg. Go ahead and make sure you didn’t accidentally walk into your dentist’s office; we’ll wait.

Woman practicing nerve flossing for sciaticaNerve flossing might help when other methods don't.

No? Good. So, have you tried flossing? Nerve flossing, that is. When sciatica doesn’t respond to more common treatment methods such as light activity or NSAIDs, your physician or physical therapist may need to dig deeper into their bag of tricks. Research suggests that traditional PT methods combined with nerve flossing may be just what you need to knock out that sciatic nerve pain.

What is Nerve Flossing?

Nerve flossing involves performing various gentle exercises used to mobilize and stretch the nerves to reduce irritation and improve your range of motion, especially in the hips. Nerve flossing may also be called neural gliding, nerve gliding, or nerve mobilization. The exercises easily can be done at home as you don’t need any equipment and the instructions are simple.

Nerve flossing is most effective when used in combination with other treatments, such as physical therapy and medications. Be sure to contact your doctor if you have not yet received a diagnosis, because the cause of sciatica greatly helps to determine treatment.

Physical therapist Theresa Marko, DPT, uses nerve flossing exercises with her patients to help decrease pain in the back and neck areas. “The nerves can get stuck in between our tissues and not move well.” says Dr. Marko.

Guidelines for Nerve Flossing Exercises

While simple, nerve flossing is still exercise and certain rules should be followed to prevent injury or pain. Nerve flossing should never be painful.

  1. Your body will need time to adjust to these new exercises. Start slowly. Only do a few repetitions at a time and increase gradually.
  2. Stop immediately if you start to feel (new) pain with any of the exercises. Report the pain to your doctor and/or physical therapist to see if there is a problem with how you are performing the exercise or if you should not do the exercise at all.
  3. Focus of staying relaxed – tensing your muscles decreases the effectiveness of the exercises.
  4. Keep breathing! Many people unknowingly stop breathing when doing exercises. Focus on your breath and be sure to deeply breathe in and out.

Nerve Flossing Exercises for Sciatica

Remember, the key to nerve flossing is movement; otherwise it’s just a stretch. “True nerve flossing is an active movement,” says Dr. Marko. She recommends and uses all of the following exercises in her practice.

Mobilizing floss

  1. Lie on the floor with both knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart. You may use a flat pillow for your head if you wish.
  2. Tuck your chin in and be sure to keep your upper body relaxed the entire time.
  3. Pull your left leg in towards your chest.
  4. Keep holding behind your left knee and slowly straighten your leg until you feel a comfortable stretch. (Alternate option: Try lifting both knees and holding them in toward the chest.)
  5. Slowly return your knee to the starting position.
  6. Remember to slowly breathe deeply and try not to press your lower back into the floor.
  7. Lower your leg back towards the chest then lower it back to the starting position on the floor.
  8. Repeat with your right leg.
  9. Complete five repetitions on each leg.

Woman performing mobilizing nerve floss for sciaticaMobilizing floss

Seated sciatic nerve floss

  1. Sitting upright in a chair, knees hip-width apart, place your feet flat on the floor and face forwards.
  2. Extend your right leg and flex your foot toward the body.
  3. Extend your head up and back so that you are looking at the ceiling.
  4. Now gently lower both your head and leg down, tucking your chin into your chest while bending your leg slightly backwards past 90 degrees.
  5. Extend and lower your head at the same time as extending and lowering your leg.
  6. Perform 10 repetitions then switch to your left leg for 10 repetitions.
  7. Switch legs and repeat exercise 10 times for the left leg.
  8. Repeat this exercise on both legs 2–3 times every day.

Hamstring floss

  1. Stand up straight, raise your left leg onto a step or other stable surface while keeping it straight and toes pointed up. (Alternate option: Holding onto a wall or other stable surface, raise your left leg and hold it in the air instead of resting it on a surface. You may want to try this version after building some strength.)
  2. While keeping your back straight, tilt your head and neck forward until you feel a little pull in your back (some people don’t feel a pull, and that’s okay).
  3. From here, point your toe and bring your chin to your chest, then flex your foot and return your head to the ground. Repeat these actions five times
  4. Return to your starting position.
  5. Do the same with your other leg.
  6. Repeat three more times, alternating between your left and right leg.

Nerve Flossing Exercises for Piriformis Syndrome

The piriformis muscle joins the base of your spine to your upper leg. Because this tiny muscle is so close to the sciatic nerve, any irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve can also cause piriformis syndrome. Piriformis syndrome can cause radiating pain to the hips, buttocks, and hamstrings, as well as pain when sitting down or walking up stairs.

Just like sciatica symptoms, nerve flossing can help relieve the painful symptoms of piriformis syndrome and increase flexibility and range of motion. Nerve flossing for piriformis syndrome is also most effective when used with other treatment methods.

Mobilizing stretch

  1. Lie flat on the floor on your back and extend both legs.
  2. Bend your left leg and bring it up so that you can hold the left knee and foot.
  3. While holding it, gently pull your bent left leg across the right side of your body and up toward your right shoulder, then return to the original position; repeat this action five times.
  4. Gently lower your left leg to the floor and repeat with your right leg.
  5. Complete five repetitions on each side two to three times a day.

People performing nerve flossing piriformis exerciseMobilizing floss for piriformis syndrome

Are There Any Risks with Nerve Flossing?

As long as you aren’t pushing your body beyond its capabilities or performing the exercises in a way that cause pain, there aren’t any risks. Remember to always start slowly. If you are still worried about the safety of nerve flossing exercises, check with your doctor or physical therapist. You should also contact your doctor if your sciatica symptoms do not improve within a few weeks.

You should always check with your doctor for a cause of your pain. If you have severe nerve damage or undiagnosed acute pain, nerve flossing could make your symptoms worse. Dr. Marko does not recommend nerve flossing for acute cases of nerve irritation because, “This definitely can cause nerve root aggravation as you are pulling on the nerve root somewhat as you are gliding. [You] need to be cautious with acute cases.”

The Verdict on Nerve Flossing for Sciatica

More research is needed on how nerve flossing can best help patients with sciatica. In the meantime, nerve flossing is an easy, natural, non-medication therapy that soothes irritated and compressed nerves and helps you improve your range of motion, especially when you use it in combination with traditional physical therapy. As long as you have a diagnosis from your doctor, or have an “okay” if your doctor is unable to make a diagnosis, nerve flossing may provide some much needed relief for your sciatica.

Updated on: 04/12/21
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Theresa Marko, DPT
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