Piriformis syndrome causes pain in the buttocks and hip. It occurs when the sciatic nerve is irritated by the piriformis muscle.
This irritation can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and shooting sensations in the buttocks and hip, and sometimes in the thighs and legs. Piriformis syndrome can be a chronic condition, a one-time injury, or a recurring source of pain.
The piriformis muscle is a pear-shaped muscle in the buttocks that extends from the base of the spine to the top of the thigh. Tightness in this muscle can compress the sciatic nerve.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It extends from the lower spine down to the foot.
Compression of the sciatic nerve can cause shooting, tingling, or numbness anywhere from the hip to the lower leg or foot.
The most common symptoms of piriformis syndrome are:
- tenderness or pain in the buttocks, usually on one side only
- pain that radiates down the back of the leg to the hamstrings and sometimes the calves
- nerve pain radiating from the buttocks down the leg
A person can experience tingling, numbness, shooting, or electrical sensations that spread from the buttocks down the leg.
Some people with piriformis syndrome think the problem is in the hamstrings. The main sign of piriformis syndrome is not tenderness in the hamstrings but very tender spots on the hips or buttocks.
Piriformis syndrome can come on suddenly, usually following an injury, or it can appear gradually over several months.
Tension and tightness in the piriformis muscle can cause the muscle to spasm. Like muscle tension in other areas of the body, the causes vary.
- an injury, such as a fall, a blow to the area, or a car accident
- overuse, such as from frequent running, excessive exercise, or over-stretching
- a sedentary lifestyle, especially with long periods of sitting
- changing from a sedentary lifestyle to more frequent exercise
- buttock muscles wasting away
- muscle tension and excess weight due to pregnancy
Piriformis syndrome is a somewhat controversial diagnosis. Doctors have argued that it is both under- and over-diagnosed. The controversy is mainly due to a lack of scientifically validated tests.
Many doctors diagnose piriformis syndrome based on symptoms alone. Only two tests that are available can boast significant evidence to support their use. These tests are:
- Magnetic resonance neurography: This form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test looks for inflammation in the nerves.
- FAIR Test: The flexion, adduction, and internal rotation test flexes the hip to stretch the piriformis and compress the sciatic nerve. It measures delays in sciatic nerve signals due to its compression under the piriformis.
A number of stretches and exercises can strengthen the piriformis muscle. Doing these exercises and stretches may help reduce the severity of muscle spasms and relieve muscle tightness.
People with piriformis syndrome may wish to try one or more of the following:
- Lie on the back with the legs extended out. Lift the painful leg toward the chest by holding the knee and ankle. Pull the knee toward the ankle on the other side of the body until a stretch occurs.
- Lie on the back with legs flat and extended. Lift the painful leg and put the foot on the floor on the outside of the opposite knee. Pull the leg across the body with the assistance of a hand, exercise band, or towel.
- With the affected leg crossed over the opposite knee and both legs bent, lie on the back. Pull the lower knee toward the shoulder until a stretch occurs.
Each stretch should be held for 30 seconds and repeated three to five times.
No one should ever force a stretch or perform one that is painful.
The same stretches that help with piriformis pain can also reduce the risk of developing piriformis pain.
Many people develop piriformis syndrome due to repetitive movements. Developing good technique can prevent these repetitive motions from damaging the piriformis.
Investing in comfortable, well-fitting running shoes is important. Shoes should ensure that a person moves properly and should not pinch or hurt in other ways. Ill-fitting shoes can undermine posture and form.
Other strategies for prevention include:
- warming up before each workout
- avoiding exercise that causes pain
- treating any injuries promptly
- avoiding exercise using injured muscles until they have healed
- practicing good posture